Old SAT, New SAT

Old SAT, New SAT

As most know, the January 23 test is the final administration of the SAT in its current form -- say “goodbye” to the 2400 scale, guessing penalties and the sentence completions that were the primary test of vocabulary. While all of that sounds good, the number of January 2016 testers looks like it will be a record-breaker for the College Board, as many students are cramming to be able to take the SAT in its current form rather than tackle the new one.

There are several good reasons to do so. First is the amount of reliable material that is available for study. College Board has released just four practice tests for the new SAT, with the promise of four additional tests to be released at some point through its Khan Academy web partnership. These four, plus the practice PSAT, are the only reliable predictors of what will be on the new SAT - anything from the test prep publishers is mere conjecture. This is a paltry amount of practice material compared to what is available as released tests College Board for the current SAT.
The other reason that students may wish to avoid the new SAT, particularly the March sitting, is that there are likely to be delays in score return, as College Board will be working on its curve and scaling with each new sitting of the test. It is possible that students who take the March test may not have results back until after the May sitting.

Following is a specific, section-by-section comparison of the new SAT vs. the current SAT, as well as the current ACT, based on the four tests that have been released.


This new test is made for advanced readers. Students taking a rigorous curriculum in which they are regularly exposed to advanced texts across a variety of disciplines should find themselves well-prepared for the new SAT. AP and IB courses, in particular, may provide students with a leg up on this exam. Students who struggle with reading will find themselves challenged across the test, as reading permeates the math, reading, writing and essay sections.


Large block passages (similar to the presentation in the ACT) now dominate the writing section of the new SAT. Gone are the short-form Error IDs and the Sentence Corrections, where students are asked to identify grammar errors or make corrections to sentences written in isolation. Instead, all of the writing questions will now be asked in context. Considering that only 6 of the 49 multiple choice questions on the current test ask students to make edits in context, this represents a significant change.

With this structural overhaul comes a change in the kinds of writing skills assessed. While the current SAT primarily tests grammar (80% of the current test focuses on grammar/mechanics/usage), the new SAT shifts focus to rhetorical skills. On the released samples tests for the redesigned SAT, 55% of writing questions require students to edit for content and logic rather than grammatical errors. Students must choose appropriate transitions between sentences and paragraphs, improve the author’s argument by adding evidence that supports a thesis, and create a logical flow of sentences and paragraphs. In many instances these “expression of ideas” questions are more difficult than similar questions on the ACT because they require students to have a greater command of the overall tone and purpose of the passage.

Additionally, the writing section of the revised SAT requires better reading comprehension than does the English section of the ACT. The sentences on this new test are, on average, 29% longer than those on the ACT English section, resulting in a higher average reading grade level (13 as opposed to 9 or 10). The redesigned SAT also introduces vocabulary to the writing section. Students can expect to see 2-4 straight vocabulary questions, wherein they must choose between words such as confided, promulgated, imparted, and unveiled. They will also likely see multiple questions asking them to use context/tone to select among homonyms (cite, sight, and site, for example) or among words with similar meanings but different connotations. Given the relatively small number of vocabulary questions on the writing section, students should not bother with flash cards or any other form of vocabulary preparation for this test.

Finally, “Charts, Tables, and Graphs” questions appear on this new writing section, but they are very easy. From what we’ve seen, they most typically require students to match labels to legends and to correctly identify trends or relationships.

What it means: While the current SAT writing section may have tested concepts unfamiliar to students (parallel construction, for instance), it was predictable in the concepts tested and the frequency in which they were tested. The new writing section is completely unpredictable in terms of focused preparation - students will have to be ready for anything. Which was a goal of the re-design.


Large block passages now dominate the reading section of the SAT. Sentence completions and short paragraphs, which comprise 25 of the 67 items on the current test, have been cut from the redesigned SAT.

The complexity of these long block passages appears to fluctuate tremendously; by contrast, ACT passages are typically more uniform in reading level. The average passage on the revised SAT is harder than the average passage on the ACT, and the hardest new SAT passages are significantly harder than anything that has ever appeared on an ACT. On each of the four released SAT tests, one of the passages has looked more like a passage you might find on an AP exam or SAT literature test than on a college entrance exam. Students will need to be able to identify this “hard passage” on the revised SAT and potentially save it for last.

Though the new SAT has eliminated the vocabulary-driven sentence completions, it hasn’t really eliminated high-level vocabulary. Students can anticipate seeing much more complex vocabulary in the passages, particularly those drawn from older texts (e.g. brazier, betook, engender, discomfiture, monotony) or from the “hard” passage (e.g. solicitude, obstinacy, consecrated, subversion, incantations). However, they can expect “vocabulary in context” (or “VIC”) questions to assess words far simpler than those found on the current SAT (e.g. expert, ambivalent, channel, directly, form).

The Command of Evidence questions, which require students to scour the passage to find the evidence justifying a prior answer, will reward students who actively read and engage with the passage. We believe that, with a little practice, many students will benefit from this new question form, but it definitely requires a thorough understanding of the passage.

Finally the “Charts, Tables and Graphs” questions in this section are generally easy, although harder than those found on the writing section. The hardest of these questions are similar to those found on ACT science section, where a student must synthesize information from both a graph and the passage.

What it means: Though direct testing of vocabulary goes from 36% of reading questions to 12.5% of reading questions, a high-level vocabulary will still be necessary for reading passage comprehension. Many students, even strong readers,may struggle with the tedium of the new SAT’s one hour-plus reading section, as compared to the three shorter reading section of the current SAT.


Here, as elsewhere on the new SAT, reading comprehension is going to be critical to success. The new test feels like it’s 50% reading comprehension, and students will need to learn how to wade through all the language to isolate the math. Some educators have indeed criticized this test for placing too great a focus on reading skills, thereby sacrificing its ability to assess pure math skills. The College Board deems this a return to applied, real-world math, but students will complain that they have not seen anything like this in their advanced math classes.

To illustrate the emphasis this new test places on reading comprehension, consider the average question length. The new SAT boasts an average of 35 words per item, which represents an increase of 40% above the current SAT. Even the ACT, which falls in the middle, averages just 31 words per question. The gap is widened when we narrow our focus to the calculator-permitted section of the new SAT, where students can expect questions to average as many as 41 words!

In addition to adding more words per question, the redesigned SAT also places greater emphasis on solving math in real-world context. More than half of the math on the new test is asked in context, representing a significant increase over either the current SAT or the ACT. When we start to break down the test more, it’s clear that the two math sections differ greatly from one another. The calculator-prohibited section primarily assesses algebraic concepts in the abstract, whereas the calculator-permitted section is word problem central, with a whopping 69% of items in context. Students can have their calculators but will likely find them less useful than ever before on this new, reading-heavy section.

Another meaningful change is that math is shifting away from questions that assess a single concept (e.g. slope), emphasizing instead questions that require students to understand multiple concepts simultaneously (e.g. slope, equation of a circle, and distance formula). More than 2/3 of the questions on the released practice tests require this type of synthesis of concepts. Similarly, many questions now have 2-4 “parts,” each with their own answers. Many of the geometry items are part of these multi-part questions. Adding to the chaos, the College Board is now including distractors in its math problems. Historically, students were given no irrelevant information on the SAT. That changes with this new test. Instead, students will have to wade through the noise, flexing their reading skills to identify the important information in each question.

Given the heightened complexity of many of the math problems, students will be able to solve problems using a number of approaches, particularly on the calculator section. Questions involving systems of inequalities typically offer three or four ways to solve, as do many of the algebra questions.

In general, geometry is falling off a cliff, dropping from 24% of items on the current test to a paltry 6% of items on the revised SAT. This makes some sense: few students will face geometry in college, and most will be moving on to math more reliant upon algebraic foundations and the manipulation of variables than the foundations of geometry. Trigonometry appears so rarely on this test that it’s almost an afterthought, consisting of a mere two percent of the items.

In terms of the level of difficulty, the revised SAT seems like a much flatter test than either the current SAT or the ACT. The new test boasts a vast majority of medium difficulty items with a handful of easy and hard problems. This is a departure from the steeper curve on the SAT and ACT. Most math items take the same amount of time to complete; by contrast, early problems on the ACT may take 20-30 seconds to complete, while later items often take 1.5-2 minutes.

What it means: In spite of the elevated focus on reading, we believe this new test will be a superior assessment of general math ability than the current SAT. By minimizing the importance of geometry and increasing its use of contextual word problems, the College Board has created a tougher but more focused test of algebraic skills that relies far less on heuristics or speed. Students lose the ability to solve with their calculator on one section, and they can no longer work backwards from the answer choices on many questions. There are still opportunities to plug-in or employ other “old SAT” strategies, but students may have trouble recognizing them, given the complexity of the problem. Similarly, the synthesis of concepts means that students cannot afford to have any gaps: either you know the math, or you’re going to be out of luck. This new test will more clearly reveal the math deficits of students, particularly in the realms of algebra I and II. As a result, this test will raise the bar for students and tutors alike!


The new essay, more akin to a document-based question on an AP exam, is a dramatic change from the current essay, which is essentially an opinion piece. The revised essay will measure reading skills, analytical skills, and writing skills, making it more typical of college-level work than ever before. What it means: Many students will find the essay more difficult, particularly when it comes to the rhetorical analysis.


The new SAT is a boon for students who struggle with the speedy nature of the ACT. Students taking the SAT will receive nearly 40% more time per item over the similar ACT. This will be very meaningful for thousands of students. And we support this decrease in emphasis on processing speed, a factor which seems far less relevant for college-level work.

Credit: Applerouth Tutoring Service

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