SAT Changes Add Complex Reading, Wordier Math Problems

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The College Board, makers of the SAT exam taken by thousands of high school students each year, is introducing a new version of the test this year – the biggest and most substantial redesign in a decade.

According to experts, the most important change is that the included reading passages will be longer and harder to read, and the math problems will contain more wording.  The move has some educators and college admissions officers worried that students who have not been exposed to a lot of reading, or those who speak a language other than English at home, will be at a disadvantage.

The changes leave many students wondering if they should take the new SAT exam or choose to take the ACT instead.  College admissions officers say they are waiting to see the scores received on the new exam before deciding how it should be weighed.

“It’s going to change who does well,” said Lee Weiss, the vice president of precollege programs at Kaplan Test Prep, one of the nation’s biggest test-preparation programs. “Before, if you were a student from a family where English was not the first language, you could really excel on the math side. It may be harder in the administration of this new test to decipher that, because there is so much text on both sides of the exam.”

College Board officials maintain that the number of words in the reading section, totaling 3,250 on the new exam and 3,300 on the old one, has remained roughly the same.  In addition, the percentage of word problems in the math section holds at 30% for both the older and new versions of the exam.  Cyndie Schmeiser, the chief of assessment at the College Board, said they have been careful to consider the amount of reading that is included on the new exam and that students should find the version “comfortable and familiar.”  She added that everything included on the exam is available to view online, writes Anemona Hartocollis for The New York Times.

However, outside analysts argue that the words are presented in a different way on the new exam and that this makes all the difference.  For example, the older version featured short sentence-completion questions.  The new exam has replaced these questions in favor of longer reading passages from novels and political sources made up of sophisticated words and thoughts.

The math problems focus more on a background story, which many students feel is causing them to be distracted by unnecessary words rather than answering the math problem.

Jed Applerouth runs a national tutoring service and has estimated that about 50% of the math portion on the new exam was reading comprehension, arguing that students will need to know how to get past all the additional language in order to focus solely on the math.

While most of the students on the East and West Coasts take the SAT exam, the ACT is most popular in the Midwest.  The ACT is based off of a survey of various curriculum used across the country, and is considered to be more straightforward than the SAT.  However, less time is offered for each question section on the ACT, and it includes a science component, writes Elizabeth Dankoski for The Huffington Post. Use of the ACT has, in the last year, surpassed the SAT for the first time.

Officials for the College Board say the test was revised in an effort to appease demands coming from college admissions officers and high school guidance counselors looking for an exam that held a clear connection to what students were learning in school.  The College Board had received numerous complaints that the exam favored higher parental income and education levels, and that white and Asian students typically performed better on the exam than did black or Hispanic students.