With the ACT gaining traction as one of the two standardized tests required of most students who look forward to gaining college admittance, it’s no surprise that the folks down at the College Board opted to rethink and redesign their flagship SAT to more closely resemble the ACT. The year 2016 will bring with it substantial change, as well as the uncertainty inherent in all things new.
As a self-proclaimed SAT guru, it’s difficult for me not to take a closer look at the changes to come for a test which has so defined every high school junior’s academic life… so after sifting through some practice problems and having taken an experimental section of the new SAT Verbal during the March 2014 administration, I can say with confidence that the 2016 SAT is generally easier, more forgiving and more relevant than any test before. Here’s why:
No Penalty for Wrong Answers
Starting with the change in AP Exams’ scoring policies a few years back, College Board has been phasing out the concept of the wrong answer penalty. Students were obviously thrilled with the elimination of the penalty for AP Exams, as the content was meant to be challenging, and students should be equally (if not more) thrilled by the prospect of the upcoming changes to the 2016 SAT.
No score penalty means you won’t be landing on the wrong side of the fence. What’s that mean? For the current SAT, getting two answers wrong on any given section deducts half a point from your raw section score. The section score rounds back up though, so the penalty for two wrong answers doesn’t really hurt you any more than leaving two unanswered. Once you get three wrong, however, you get three-quarters of a point deducted, which rounds down to a full point deducted from your raw score.
What this means for students should be obvious. Whereas guessing was discouraged before, it will now become your greatest ally. Not only that, instead of five answer options for each question, there will now be four. So not only have your chances of guessing the correct answer increased, you also get no penalty for guessing wrong! Take your best stab at the correct answer for each question because the chances are in your favor.
A Simplified Verbal Section
Think of Verbal as a combination of Critical Reading and Writing. The only thing is, the questions are decidedly more straightforward than Critical Reading questions of old and your grammar skills will be tested in context. I had the opportunity of taking an experimental section such as this in the March 2014 SAT administration, and can say with confidence that the new Verbal section is nothing to be afraid of at all.
Each question references a specific line in the passage, but the passage is printed with larger spaces between lines to make reading easier. Not only that, large markers marked with numbers indicate which questions said lines correspond to, helping students identify lines of interest more quickly.
No Esoteric Vocabulary
No longer do you need to memorize hundreds of vocab words you’ll never use for the exclusive purpose of not failing the Critical Reading section. The eight or so vocabulary questions of increasing difficulty are no more, as the revamped Verbal section will focus strictly on passage-based analysis. The change goes hand-in-hand with the College Board’s attempt to craft an SAT that tests more relevant skills. After all, what’s the point of memorizing so many words when you have a thesaurus?
Looser Time Constraints
Whereas the current SAT gives either 20 or 25 minutes for Math and Critical Reading sections of anywhere between 18 and 25 questions, the new SAT will give students roughly the same amount of time for around two or three less questions per section, on average. This allows students more time to answer each problem, which is absolutely crucial for a test where each minute is absolutely crucial.
Perhaps the most intuitive change to the SAT is the removal of the 25-minute essay and the introduction of an optional, nearly hour-long essay. Writers need time to think, and quite frankly, 25 minutes is not enough time for any student to put out their most coherent and well though-out work. Instead of testing students’ true writing abilities, the current SAT only tests students’ abilities to scrap together a generic, ordinarily-structured, easy-to-read piece of rhetorical garbage within unreasonable time constraints.
With an extended essay, students will have more time to formulate their thoughts and write the kind of essay that they want to write. I would also strongly advise all students to opt for the essay – doing so reveals more of who you are and shows that you can articulate, that you have creativity, that you’re capable of doing more than just filling in bubbles for generic questions which are being force-fed to you by a standardized testing monopolist. Also, opting out makes you seem like you did so strategically because you can’t write or are super lazy. You don’t want to do that.
The new SAT seems really, really easy from an objective standpoint. SAT experts and tutors seem to agree, but who knows? The curve could be generally harsher to keep scores in a normal distribution, making the test emphasize problem-solving accuracy over the ability to solve more difficult questions. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, if you tend to choke under pressure with more challenging problems.
One of the only possible deterrents for the 2016 SAT, then, is the lack of testing resources available for the test. While prep companies still have some catching up to do, you can definitely prepare yourself with the new set of practice tests which the College Board has published to replace the famous Blue Book. If you’ve been readying yourself for the current SAT for some time, however, I wouldn’t advise switching gears now. Whichever path you choose, have confidence, eat a hearty breakfast and I hope luck finds you well! (And remember, one test on one particular day cannot define you as a scholar or as a person).