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On the Ground with the Redesigned PSAT and SAT

I’ve had the pleasure of working with several students on the redesigned PSAT and SAT tests over the past few weeks, and I would like to share a few observations that I’ve made on the redesigned nature of the tests.

There have been many articles written on the redesigned SAT suite of tests, most of which focused on analyzing test changes and overall feel; until recently, however, few have reflected on the test from a tutoring perspective. How do students orient themselves toward the tests? What do they find challenging? How can tutors help their students adjust test preparation to maximize performance on the redesigned tests?

Reading – paraphrasing is key

The redesigned PSAT and SAT have done away with sentence completion questions and short passages. In their place are four long passages and a pair of medium passages for comparison. Two passages are science-based, two passages are history-based, and one passage is prose. What does this mean for students? First, it means that they will have to encounter complex sentences such as the following:

The male element has held high carnival thus far; it has fairly run riot from the beginning, overpowering the feminine element everywhere, crushing out all the diviner qualities in human nature, until we know but little of true manhood and womanhood, of the latter comparatively nothing, for it has scarce been recognized as a power until within the last century (taken from Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s “The Destructive Male” speech, delivered in 1868).

Or this excerpt:

The phosphate-sugar backbone of our model is completely regular, but any sequence of the pairs of bases can fit into the structure. It follows that in a long molecule many different permutations are possible, and it therefore seems likely that the precise sequence of bases is the code which carries the genetical information (from Watson and Crick’s “Genetical Implications of the Structure of Deoxyribonucleic Acid”).

More than the current SAT or ACT, the redesigned SAT reading requires that students come to the test with a high reading level. They will need to be able to deal with obscure vocabulary, archaic sentence structures, and advanced topics. Students will see natural and social science passages full of unfamiliar jargon, historical passages previously only seen on AP-level tests, and questions that require synthesis of the passages and charts, tables, and graphs.

I’ve had students with perfect 36 scores on the reading section of the ACT who stumble over the redesigned SAT reading, but I’ve also found several approaches that have helped. First, I’ve had my students sharpen their ability to paraphrase or visualize long sentences. A student might say of the first sentence above, “Well, I don’t know what ‘male element’ means, or how ‘divine qualities’ relates to the whole ‘male/female’ thing, but I do know that the sentence is saying that men are putting women down and keeping them from getting power.” Bingo! That paraphrase will help with a question that asks about the meaning of the sentence or part of the sentence.

Second, I’ve spent more time talking with my students about the function of words, phrases, sentences, and paragraphs in a passage. We’re guaranteed to have several rhetorical/persuasive essays on each test, and you can bet that the College Board will test students’ awareness of an author’s rhetorical devices. When my students read a passage not only looking for content, but also asking how the author is crafting his/her argument, they are setting themselves up for success with these question types. Students might benefit from asking the following questions as they read:

  • What is the author’s overall argument?
  • How does the author try to persuade the audience of that argument?
  • How does the argument progress throughout the passage? What twists and turns does it take?
  • What evidence or logical reasoning does the author use?
  • What is the tone the author uses to get his/her point across?

Writing – context is king

The SAT’s Writing section is very similar to the English section of the ACT; however, the reading level for the SAT passages is higher. I’ve found that sentence order and transition questions can be particularly sneaky. Consider the following passage, based on one of the redesigned SAT writing passages:

In 1958, the establishment of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration replaced the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics. President Dwight Eisenhower, in his second term of office, had remained modest in his support of the space program until the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. He established NASA as a civilian, non-military organization that would pursue peaceful exploration of space. NASA is currently engaged in projects to extend human activities across the solar system, further understanding of the Earth and the universe, and innovate new space-related technologies. Over its 57-year history, NASA has accomplished remarkable feats – a manned lunar landing, sustained manned orbit of Earth, and probes to the remotest parts of our solar system – and it shows no signs of flagging. On August 6th, 2012, the Mars rover Curiosity successfully transmitted the first pre-recorded message from Mars to Earth, and we can expect other remarkable achievements in the near future.

A question might ask, “Where should the bolded sentence go in the paragraph?” On the ACT, these questions are a breeze. Usually the sentence has a logic tag such as “these” or “he/she” that requires the student to find the antecedent of those pronouns. On the redesigned SAT, order/placement questions can be more subtle. The bolded sentence feels a bit out of place. The sentence before it references the present accomplishments of NASA, while the bolded sentence serves as a summary of its past achievements. The sentence following the bolded one describes a recent event. In order to keep the chronological flow consistent, then, the bolded sentence should go before the sentence beginning “NASA is currently engaged in…” That change will ensure a smooth transition from the past to the present.

On the current SAT, only 6 of the 49 writing questions were rhetoric-based: the paragraph improvement questions. On the new test, rhetoric will be tested on each of the writing passages, so students will need to get more comfortable with those question types.

Math – systems are crucial

As a tutor, I’ve really enjoyed tutoring the math section of the redesigned PSAT/SAT. Its questions require that students not only bring a strong math background to the test, but also that they make connections between concepts. This weaving of concepts into a harmonious whole (for example, the relationship between zeroes, solutions, x-intercepts, factors, and the Remainder Theorem is beautifully tested on the new SAT) makes some of the problems really rewarding to help students learn.

But the redesigned math section is not without its challenges. I’ve been thrown for a loop on a number of questions when I’ve relied on my old SAT thinking. For example, consider the following expression:

(7x-4)/(x+1)

Historically, I would have looked for an “elegant solution” to this type of problem, something simple to resolve the difficulty. Maybe factor out something, split the fraction apart, or cross-multiply. This question, instead, tests dividing polynomials. It wants to know how many times + 1 goes into 7– 4, and whether or not it goes in evenly (i.e. is a factor of the polynomial). The answer, 7 with a remainder of -11/(x + 1), is far from elegant.

The beauty of the new SAT, and what makes it so challenging for my students, is that it is not enough to just be strong in math and muscle through problems. Students now need to know the remainder theorem and apply that knowledge to a range of possible problems. Students need to know that a fraction, in one sense, is asking how many times the denominator goes into the numerator. Students still need lots of “tools” in their “tool belts,” but now they will be required to know when to use a flathead and a Philips head screwdriver (metaphorically speaking).

Many test prep strategies are just as useful, if not moreso, on the new test. Paraphrasing a complex reading sentence, making sure to read the context surrounding a possible grammar error, and actively reading word problems in math are tried-and-true approaches that will remain crucial on the new test. Beyond those strategies, students can expect to see higher reading expectations, more rhetorical writing questions, and new math concepts/systems, each requiring additional practice.


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