Deconstructing the New SAT

Jed Applerouth, PhD
April 23, 2014
min read

The plot thickens. When we outlined last month the major changes coming to the SAT, we commented that the “new” SAT seemed suspiciously like a knock-off of the increasingly popular ACT.  We’ve had a week to scrutinize the College Board’s 208-page preview of the redesigned SAT and what we found was a bit more complicated: a new SAT that clearly imitates its rival in certain areas, diverges in others, but reflects the Common Core State Standards throughout.  We knew David Coleman, president of the College Board and former participant in the Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSSI), would bring the SAT closer to the Common Core, but this redesigned SAT is so closely tied to the Core standards that it may very well sink or swim with them.  The College Board’s strategy could backfire by alienating students and leaving the ACT the undisputed college admission test of choice; alternatively, it could earn the SAT new legitimacy in the marketplace as the more rigorous and better Common Core-aligned assessment.  If admissions officers perceive the new SAT as the better test, student opinion regarding the tests won't matter.

So what exactly is changing in the new SAT?  What are the implications for students?  And will these changes help the College Board catch up with ACT, Inc.?  Let’s take a closer look.



Historically the SAT has put less of a focus than the ACT on processing speed.  In his 2013 NACAC address, Coleman referenced that speed may play even less of a role on the new SAT, and the details of the redesigned SAT confirm this. Let’s compare the time allotted per question for the SAT and ACT:

Seconds Per Question



Current SAT


















Compared to the ACT, the new SAT will allow students more time per question on each of the three sections: 33% more time on the grammar section, 43% more time on the reading section, and 40% more time on the math section. On the math section that allows calculators, the new SAT will allow a whopping 49% more time per question than the ACT.  This is effectively akin to receiving 50% extended time on the ACT, without receiving any accommodation.

Students with slower processing speeds who are unable to attain an accommodation for extended time on the ACT may fare better on the more generously timed SAT.

Conclusion: Timing = Advantage SAT


Common Core Alignment

The SAT in its current form lags behind the ACT in Common-Core alignment. But with this redesign, the SAT did not just play catch-up: it leapfrogged its rival.  Sensitive to the political controversy that has recently embroiled the CCSSI (with states like Indiana withdrawing from the standards altogether) the College Board writers explicitly mention the Common Core only once in the 208-page description of the redesigned SAT.  But don’t be fooled; scratch ever so slightly beneath the surface of the new SAT, and you hit a Common Core gold mine.  The redesigned SAT is effectively a 12th-grade Common Core assessment designed to rival the forthcoming tests from PARCC and Smarter Balanced, consortia tasked by the Department of Education with developing the Common Core tests for the 21st century.  And this redesigned SAT is just the first step: The College Board explicitly revealed plans to release similar Common-Core tests for every grade level, from middle school to high school.

Conclusion: Common Core Alignment = Advantage SAT

So how exactly did the ACT and the Common Core standards influence the redesign of the SAT?  Let’s dive in to the individual sections for a deeper understanding.


For years the SAT has tested students’ grammar and rhetorical skills primarily using error IDs and sentence improvements—question types that are completely devoid of any context.  The ACT, in contrast, has tested these skills in the context of passages drawn from a variety of academic domains.  The ACT’s method of assessing writing skills is better aligned with the Common Core Language Arts standards specifying that students be able to “Apply knowledge of language to understand how language functions in different contexts, to make effective choices for meaning or style, and to comprehend more fully when reading or listening” (CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L11-12.1).  The College Board writers, rather than struggling to develop a new format, simply copied that of the ACT, placing error-ridden passages on the left side of the page and multiple choice problems offering edits on the right.  The Writing section of the redesigned SAT steals so unabashedly from ACT English that when placed side by side these two sections are nearly indistinguishable.

A major content change to the redesigned SAT is the addition of redundancy questions and punctuation questions that test commas, semicolons, and colons.  These question types have typically constituted over 20% of ACT English questions, but have been conspicuously absent from the SAT.

The most unfortunate change to SAT Writing—adding charts and tables to the end of select passages—seems completely contrived.   Amidst questions covering the proper use of commas, verb tenses, and prepositional phrases, students will be asked to accurately read data in a bar graph.  What does data analysis have to do with grammar?  Nothing whatsoever.  The College Board is attempting to integrate the Common Core standards that are currently measured on the ACT Science section without adding an SAT Science section and blatantly ripping off the ACT.  However, sticking charts and tables into a section designed to measure grammar and rhetorical skills is at best an awkward solution, and is certainly a distraction from the primary task at hand.

Conclusion: Writing = Advantage ACT


The Essay

Like the ACT, the redesigned SAT is going to offer an optional essay at the conclusion of the normal testing administration.  The College Board doubled the length of its current essay from 25 to 50 minutes (making it 20 minutes longer than the ACT essay) and shifted the focus from creative writing to analysis.  The new essay prompt asks students to explain how an author builds an argument and strengthens the logic and persuasiveness of a position.  This is no opinion piece.  The closing sentence of the prompt makes that clear: “Your essay should not explain whether you agree with [the author’s] claims, but rather explain how [the author] builds an argument to persuade his audience.”  This new essay will be more useful in assessing students’ analytical and reasoning skills, but many students may be wary of spending 50 minutes on a writing assignment after completing a nearly 4-hour test administration.  Logistically, placing an optional essay at the end may make sense, but it will prove burdensome for some students.

Conclusion: Essay = Advantage ACT



The College Board is bringing the SAT Reading test closer to the Common Core standards primarily by mimicking the ACT Reading section. The most significant difference between the two tests is now gone: the SAT has wholesale abandoned sentence completions. Rather than ask students to complete a sentence with an “SAT word” like surfeit or obsequious, the redesigned SAT will ask students to define easier words like intense or channel using the context of a passage.

Like the ACT, the SAT Reading section will consist of passages that are no more than 750 words long and always come from the domains of Science, Literature, and Humanities/Social Studies.  In addition, the College Board will inject ACT Science-style charts, graphs, and figures into the science passages.  Thankfully, this clear attempt to compensate for not having its own dedicated Science section works significantly better here, where students are already being asked to comprehend a scientific passage, than it did in the new Writing section.

One notable difference between the new SAT and the ACT is the SAT’s inclusion on each test of one passage drawn from a U.S. founding document or from the “Great Global Conversation.”  The sample essay provided in last week’s preview–a speech given on the floor of the House during the Nixon impeachments–seemed to place non-American students at a significant disadvantage, contrary to Coleman’s stated goals of “expanding access” to more and more students.  Students who did not grow up exposed to the subtleties of Congressional hearings, public debate, and the Constitutional balance of powers would lack key context and be at a significant disadvantage on this passage.  If this reflects the forthcoming content on the revised SAT, many international students will swiftly migrate to the ACT.

Conclusion: Reading = Advantage TBD



On the new SAT Math test, students will face tougher problems but have more time to solve them.  New questions will emphasize “conceptual understanding” over heuristics and speed, and, on one of the two Math sections, students will be barred from using their calculators.

Algebra will be the king of the redesigned SAT Math section. According to the numbers offered in this week’s preview, geometry will be taking a major backseat: going from a whopping 40% of questions on the current SAT to a mere 10% on the redesigned test.  In addition, just about every advanced math topic that is currently tested by the ACT and not the SAT (from trigonometry and radians to equations of a circle and congruence theorems) has been added to a new category called, eloquently enough, “Additional Topics in Math.”

Nowhere on the new SAT is the move towards Common Core alignment more profoundly evident than in the redesigned Math section.  For example, take a look at the College Board’s language outlining the first two skills tested by the new “Heart of Algebra” category of questions:


1.     Create, solve, or interpret linear equations in one variable.
2.     Create, solve, or interpret linear inequalities in one variable.

Compare this language to that of the first Common Core standard in High School Algebra:


1.     Create equations and inequalities in one variable and use them to solve problems.

This minor rewording is indicative of just how deeply the new Math section is tied to the Common Core. The new SAT Math questions drive right through the heart of Common Core by relying less upon heuristic problem solving (i.e., when you see this kind of problem, employ this strategy) and more upon conceptual understanding of math principles.  As an example, whereas the current SAT would present a complex word problem about cars travelling at different speeds and ask:


How long after the second car leaves will it catch up to the first car?
A)    17 minutes
B)    30 minutes

The new SAT would more likely ask:


Which of the follow mathematical equations represents the scenario described?
A)    3x + 4y – 19 = 230
B)    4x + 3y – 19 = 180


What’s the difference? The first version allows students to work backwards from given answer choices or employ other problem-solving approaches to arrive at the answer.  The second version requires a conceptual understanding of how the variables in a mathematical equation align to real life scenarios.  This change better aligns the question with Common Core standards, which put a premium on math “fluency” and understanding.

At first glance, not only is the new SAT math section better aligned with the Common Core, but it is poised to be more challenging than either the current SAT or ACT math sections.  The 26 sample math questions provided in the preview document were, on average, more difficult than current SAT questions, and several of the sample questions significantly raised the SAT skill ceiling.  We were particularly surprised by the difficulty of the questions on the non-calculator section, which will certainly pose a challenge for many students.

Conclusion: Math = Advantage ACT



By seemingly designing its new test entirely around the Common Core standards, the College Board is attempting to position itself as the only legitimate test that reflects high school coursework.  However, the growing opposition to the new standards poses a genuine risk to the College Board:  the SAT may very well sink or swim with the Common Core State Standards.

The SAT is becoming a harder test, and the elevated difficulty level of the redesigned SAT will unquestionably drive many college-bound students towards the ACT.  Given the choice between two assessments that are equally weighted in the college admissions process, apart from those students who will gravitate towards the new SAT for its laxer timing demands, who would choose the harder test?

The College Board is not making a play for student popularity; it is endeavoring to convince admissions offices across the country that it is the only legitimate game in town.  The College Board wins the game if college admissions officers come to perceive the SAT as a more rigorous and valuable assessment and begin encouraging students to take it over the ACT.  If admissions officers do not see the value in a test that is better aligned with the Common Core and continue to assign equal weight to both tests, the new SAT will be in a precarious position as students migrate in droves to the ACT.  This is quite a gamble: the directors of the College Board clearly have some moxie.  Now we must await the competitive response of the ACT Inc., to see if it will hold the course that has served it well over the past few years, or make a bold move of its own to reclaim the title of the nation’s “most aligned” assessment.


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