The Great SAT Makeover

Jed Applerouth, PhD
March 12, 2014
min read
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The College Board had no choice but to change. Facing rapidly declining market share and an existential threat from a highly focused competitor, the College Board was in trouble. It’s common for flagging companies to imitate their more successful rivals. What’s surprising is the degree to which the College Board was willing to remake its flagship SAT to resemble the ACT.

Perhaps we could have seen this coming. For the last several years, The College Board has been looking to Iowa City, the home of ACT, Inc., to find new ideas and new talent for its organization. It has been cherry picking dozens of high-level ACT employees, including the President and Vice President of ACT’s education division and its Senior VP for strategic initiatives. In mid-2013, The College Board opened its first office in Iowa City, just a few miles from ACT Inc.’s national headquarters. This allowed The College Board to poach top employees without requiring them to move their families from Iowa City to Manhattan.

The College Board took the ACT team, studied the ACT playbook, and unveiled a new test that sounds precariously close to the ACT – leading one to question how the market will respond to two assessments so closely aligned. There is a high likelihood that, in this case, the market will punish the changeling SAT, going through yet another comprehensive makeover, and reward the tried and true ACT, ever faithful to its original course. What’s more, by having to delay the new assessment for a full two years, a move most likely inspired by impossible deadlines set out by the University of California system, the SAT risks falling further and further behind its surging rival.

When 2016 arrives, students will be left to choose between two assessments that are strikingly similar. Our company recently released a guide outlining the current distinctions between the SAT and ACT. During last week’s webinar, as College Board President David Coleman listed all of the impending changes to the SAT, we systematically crossed off every one of the major distinctions. In two years, how will we articulate the differences between these assessments? A number of my colleagues have begun referring to the College Board’s new test as a “more coachable version of the ACT.” Somehow I don’t believe that was the outcome Coleman and his team were going for.

Let’s walk through the announced changes, as we understand them.

Goodbye, Vocabulary

As expected, advanced vocabulary will finally be expunged from the SAT. Vocabulary has experienced a slow and steady demise since its debut in the earliest version of the Army Alpha-inspired assessment. Just as antonyms expired in 1994, followed by analogies in 2005, sentence completions will have their official epitaph in 2016. Ninety years of privileging advanced vocabulary will be history.

So Long, Guessing Penalty

Students will no longer have to spend any time measuring the costs or benefits of an educated guess. Just as they do on the ACT, students will now need to bubble in random answers if they find themselves with a string of unanswered questions and the clock ticking to zero. Not having to worry about whether to guess or omit does free up some cognitive capacity, and this is one change that many students will certainly appreciate.

Hello, Science!

The ACT will no longer be the only collegiate assessment on the block which measures scientific proficiency. The new SAT will incorporate the tables, charts, and graphs that have been the hallmark of the ACT science section since that test was introduced in 1959. SAT takers will need to find correlations, plot points, and manipulate data just as they would on the ACT. Unlike the ACT, which gives students a separate science section score, the SAT will incorporate the science items throughout both the verbal and the math sections.

Analytical and “Optional” Essay

Taking yet another cue from the ACT, the SAT will make its now-required essay optional for all students. No longer will students be able to fabricate facts on the SAT essay: they will be beholden to the text of a provided document. This new essay model is reminiscent of the analytical essay sections of the LSAT, GRE and GMAT. It also borrows heavily from the document-based question format found on The College Boards’ AP history exams. Students will have 50 minutes to evaluate how an author uses evidence, reasoning, and stylistic or persuasive elements to skillfully convey an idea.

For the vast majority of our students, this essay will not truly be optional. Just as they do with the ACT, many colleges will insist that each student submit an SAT essay for comparison against that student’s college admissions essays. This helps admissions offices determine the authenticity of a student’s application. Just as we counsel our current students that they must take at least one ACT essay, all of our students will be encouraged to take at least one SAT essay. For the vast majority of colleges who super-score the SAT, that one essay should be adequate. Subsequent SAT administrations without the essay will be significantly shorter than the current test, a boon to many students.

Grammar in Context

Just as the ACT does in its English section, the SAT will now place all of its writing items in the context of paragraphs and passages, rather than in isolation. This is a significant change from the current Writing test with its abundance of stand-alone error IDs and sentence improvements. The expanded “verbal” section of the new SAT will now ask students to flex their grammar skills and become editors of flawed essays – yet another positive change that blurs the distinction between the SAT and ACT.

Mysterious Math

The new SAT’s presentation of math remains the greatest mystery. We know with certainty that the psychometric, aptitude-based math questions, not aligned with any Common Core standard, will be a thing of the past. But it’s not yet clear which specific content areas will be added to or removed from the test. There is some speculation that more advanced math concepts will be departing the SAT. This would actually take the SAT further from the ACT, which already assesses more advanced content such as trigonometry, matrices, logarithms and irrational numbers.

Coleman announced that the new SAT will focus on linear equations, complex equations or functions, ratios, percentages and proportions. However, he gave the caveat that the test will continue to sample from other topics in math. The degree of sampling makes all the difference. In the event the SAT shrinks its pool of assessed concepts, it will become more and more coachable for students. The fewer concepts assessed, the easier it will be to prepare students for a higher score. This is currently the case with the Writing section of the SAT and the English section of the ACT, which cover the fewest discrete topics of any of their respective test’s sections. With limited content to master, students typically see the greatest score gains on these sections.

SAT math will also become more context-rich, as students will be asked to analyze real-world scenarios and apply math concepts to answer questions. This will render math less abstract and more applied, with a greater focus on analysis and problem solving. We can expect more multi-step problems, much like those we currently see in the science section of the ACT.

Students will also need to abandon their calculators for certain math sections which will stress fluency with calculation and number sense. This is the current model used by the quantitative section of the GMAT, which also prohibits calculators. Students will need to bone up on speedy estimation techniques to master these calculator-free sections.

Reading and Evidence

Reading, taking cues from the ACT, will now integrate passages from a broader range of disciplines, including the sciences, social sciences, and humanities. In addition, students taking the new SAT Reading section will occasionally see the tables and graphs usually reserved for the ACT science. New question types will stress evidence, requiring students to select a quote from the text to provide supporting evidence for an answer. We’ve already seen these question types emerging on the most recent SAT administrations.

Aligning with the Common Core

It is no surprise that the new SAT will be cozying up to the Common Core State Standards. When The College Board hired Common Core veteran David Coleman as its president in 2012, it sent a clear signal that the SAT was moving towards greater Common Core alignment. Every item on the new SAT will map to a Common Core standard, which is essential for the SAT to compete with the better aligned ACT. Additionally Coleman alluded to the fact that once the flagship SAT is completed, The College Board will turn its focus to developing grade 6-12 assessments. This is a direct counter measure to ACT Inc.’s announced Aspire tests for students in grades 3-12, and will also be a hedge against forthcoming assessments under development by national testing consortia PARCC and Smarter Balanced.

Move over 2400 and Welcome Back 1600

By breaking apart the Writing section into an optional essay and grammar/rhetorical items that will live in the verbal section, the SAT will once again return to a two score format with a Math/Verbal division. Without a doubt, many educators are celebrating this return to the familiar 1600 scale.

Shorter is Certainly Sweeter

On administrations in which students opt out of the essay, the SAT will clock in at 3 hours of content, a mere 5 minutes longer than the ACT. This shorter duration will be better for many students, particularly those with attentional deficits.

America the Beautiful

The College Board will use one of America’s “founding documents” or other important historical documents in every new SAT. This will appease the patriots and history buffs, though it might place a small stumbling block before international applicants.

Going Digital

The ACT is going online in 2015, and The College Board is again following the lead of the nation’s number one assessment by unleashing its own digital SAT in March of 2016.

Don’t Forget Those APs!

Coleman gave the caveat that the SAT should not be used in isolation. He would prefer that educators and admissions officers use the new SAT in tandem with The College Board’s AP line of products. This comes as no great surprise. It is meaningful to note that the AP exams are currently undergoing significant modifications of their own.


So… What Will This Mean for Students?

These changes will affect current freshmen in October 2015 when they take the preview PSAT and then again in March of 2016 when the updated SAT is released. Learning from history, we anticipate many members of the class of 2017 will sit for an administration of the current SAT in October, November, December, or January of their junior year before the test changes in March of 2016. Some students will complete their testing with the current SAT, while others will hedge their bets and sit for both the old and new assessments. Colleges will honor both tests.

I anticipate many students, viewing both the significant similarities between the two assessments and the uncertainty behind an ever-changing SAT, will stick with the ACT. One of the few advantages held by the SAT is that more colleges super-score it for admissions, though the ACT is slowly gaining in this area. Another downside of the ACT is its aggressive timing demands, placing such a premium on processing speed. If the SAT allows more time per question than does the ACT, something Coleman alluded to in his 2013 speech at the NACAC national conference in Toronto, this could keep some students in the SAT’s camp.

Other students will dislike that portions of the new SAT math sections will prohibit the use of calculators, as many students have become reliant upon their devices for even the most basic computations. This could push some students towards the ACT.

Finally, the fifty-minute essay will certainly intimidate certain students and push them towards the shorter, 30-minute essay of the ACT.


Although I am a fan of many of these changes to the SAT, my sense is the ACT comes out the big winner here. The new SAT will remain a highly coachable test, and with its strong moves towards the ACT, another highly coachable assessment, the new SAT may become even more coachable than before, despite Coleman’s rhetoric to the contrary.

For those interested in closely tracking the specific changes coming to the SAT, The College Board will reveal the full structure of the new test along with example practice problems on April 16th at its website:

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