Previewing the New SAT

College Board releases more detail on ideas behind the new version of the test -- and some sample questions.

April 16, 2014

In March, the College Board unveiled plans for an overhaul of the SAT, revamping the much-derided essay, promising the end to "SAT words" that are rarely used, and promising a test more focused on students' ability to demonstrate sound thinking, rather than test-taking skills.

Today, the College Board is releasing much more detail about the thinking behind new sections of the test, and some samples of questions. The College Board cautioned that it continues to test the validity of various approaches and specific questions, so these approaches could change before the new test is used in 2016. But there is more detail than there was in March -- and that is likely to cause much discussion about the changes.

Consider the change in the essay question. Under the current version of the test, students respond to an essay prompt about some broad philosophical question, and the students are judged based on their form -- with no penalty for inaccurate assertions. The new approach, according to the backgrounder released by the College Board, focuses on "students' ability to analyze source texts and, more broadly, to understand and make effective use of evidence in reading and writing."

The College Board argues that this approach will have much more validity. "In a break from the past and present of much standardized direct-writing assessment, the essay task is not designed to elicit students' subjective opinions but rather to assess whether students are able to comprehend ...  source text and to create an effective written analysis of that text."

The example given is an essay by Dana Gioia called "Why Literature Matters." Test-takers are instructed to read the essay and then write about how the author "builds an argument." The essay is also supposed to analyze how Gioia uses various features -- such as evidence and reasoning -- to advance his argument. The test prompt specifically tells the students that they "should not explain whether you agree with Gioia's claims."

The College Board makes a case in the materials that even multiple-choice questions -- such as "evidence-based reading" passages -- require more of students than the past versions of the test. For example, students could be asked to read (in the example from this portion of the test) the remarks from Representative Barbara Jordan in 1974 as the House Judiciary Committee considered whether to impeach President Nixon.

A question students would be asked might be:

The stance Jordan takes in the passage is best described as that of:

A. an idealist setting forth principles.

B. an advocate seeking a compromise position.

C. an observer striving for neutrality.

D. a scholar researching a historical controversy.

To get to the correct answer of A, the College Board says, "students need to have a sense of the whole passage and to look for clues to Jordan's point of view within it."

Similar examples and explanations are available on the various other sections of the SAT at the College Board website found in the link in the second paragraph of this article.

The College Board provided advance access to these examples and explanations to reporters only on the condition that they not be shared with any potential source before today, so Inside Higher Ed is unable to include here comments of outside experts who might review the materials (but encourages your reactions in the comments section).

But the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a longtime critic of the College Board and the SAT, this week released its own analysis of the new SAT, saying that the changes involved only "cosmetic surgery" that did not deal with the underlying problems of the test.

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