Monday, December 7, 2015

The New SAT - Part II of our Series

We are continuing with our four-part series on changes to the SAT, which we began last week with an examination of how the revised test reflects the controversial Common Core State Standards. Today's post looks at how test-taking strategies will be (somewhat) less important in the new exam and on minor changes in the reading sections. The remaining sections will be posted later this week:
  • Part III will examine changes to the writing and math sections and discuss the importance of reading to all aspects of the test.
  • Finally, in part IV, we will provide our recommendations as to what to do about the changes to the SAT, including registering by December 28, 2015 to take the last sitting of the old version of the SAT on January 23, 2016. 

Test-Taking Strategies Will be (Somewhat) Less Important

All test-takers would do well to be strategic when sitting for a high-stakes exam. But the elimination of the so-called “guessing penalty” from the SAT means that students can devote a little more focus to the new test’s content and less to its form. The previous SAT offered students five answer choices for each question. A correct answer earned a point, and students were not penalized for questions left unanswered. Each incorrect answer, however, cost test-takers a quarter of a point, so many testing prep courses urged students not to make a guess unless they could eliminate three of the five answer choices with fair certainty. This structure forced students to try to identify correct answers and calculate their odds of success simultaneously, an extra tax for active working memory.

The new SAT will present students with only four choices, and instead of incurring a penalty for wrong answers they simply won’t get credit. In our book, this difference is a good one for students because it allows them to devote their mental resources to the questions themselves, not to the format of the test. It also levels the playing field a little for students with less access to test preparation courses and materials; these young people are less likely to learn about useful testing strategies and so face a disadvantage. Students should still expect some sneaky tactics, however, such as answer choices designed to mislead the inattentive or unsure.

Reading: Small Changes

Much of the reading section looks the same as it has in the past, though there may be more informational passages and fewer texts from novels and stories. The Common Core State Standards (CCSS) place a large emphasis on evidence-based conclusions, however, and this may be tricky for some students. For example, one question on a practice test provided by the College Board asks students to draw a conclusion, and the following question asks which part of the passage provides the best evidence for their previous answer. A student can’t get the second question right if he misses the first.

Studying for the SAT’s vocabulary questions used to entail memorizing sometimes obscure words and definitions. Instead of relying on long-term memory to answer vocabulary questions, students taking the new test will need good reading comprehension skills. The revamped exam will query students on words that are more “practical,” but in order to answer questions about their definitions, readers will have to understand how they are used in context. For example, one of the sample reading questions asks whether “intense,” as used in the passage, most nearly means “emotional,” “concentrated,” “brilliant,” or “determined.” Simply being able to define “intense” isn’t enough to answer this question; one must understand the word’s function within the text.

Perhaps the most important thing to know about reading and the new SAT, however, is that good reading skills are essential for success on the whole test, not just the language arts sections.

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