16 Apr 2014

First Reaction to the New SAT Test Specification

Submitted by Karl Hagen
With my coffee this morning, I started reading the preliminary test specification for the new SAT. Here are my immediate thoughts.

When College Board first announced the high-level changes, a number of people remarked that the net effect would be to make the SAT more like the ACT. And many of the specific changes are definitely a move in that direction. But the most significant change, in my opinion, is one of philosophy. The SAT was originally designed as an assessment that was independent of high school curriculum, and although over the years College Board has been more and more explicit about what skills the SAT measures, those skills have remained fairly abstract. The idea was that the SAT would measure your general verbal and mathematical reasoning skills in a way that didn't really depend on the specific curriculum you took. In other words, the fact that, unlike the ACT, the SAT was only indirectly related to what students actually did in the classroom wasn't a bug. It was a design feature. With these revisions, the SAT is now wholly in the ACT's camp as to the purpose of the assessment. That shift was already clear from the initial announcement, but the spec reemphasizes how important it is. Don't underestimate the consequences of that shift. It informs everything else about how the test will be structured.

There are too many specific changes to discuss in one blog post. The one that stands out most to me, and the one I want to talk about first, is what they've done to the essay.

What most people will likely focus on is that now it's optional. Or, to be more precise, you'll now be able to take the SAT with or without the essay. If you apply to a school that requires the essay, it won't be optional for you. In this respect, the SAT will resemble the ACT, and I would expect that schools which require the ACT+Writing will also require the essay for the new SAT.

In other ways, though, this essay is going to be something completely new, and sharply distinct from either the old SAT essay or the ACT one. It's substantially longer (50 minutes, vs. 25 for the current SAT and 30 for the ACT), but far more important than that is that they have switched the rhetorical mode of the expected response from persuasive to analytical.

You will now be presented with a real passage, of a length similar to those in the ordinary reading passages, and you will need to write an essay that analyzes how the author of the passage attempts to persuade the reader rather than expressing your own opinion on the issue that the author discusses.

This is a huge, huge change. The traditional SAT/ACT essay is meant to be a measure of generic writing ability. The particular topic chosen is largely irrelevant. It's just a vehicle for you to write something. With the new essay, writing will not be clearly distinct from reading. And, of course, that's how academic writing really works. A competent college essay isn't just the writer spouting opinions. It's a participation in an ongoing conversation and requires the writer to synthesize what others have said before and respond to that. To do well on this essay, you will have to be able to read an unfamiliar passage, analyze it for rhetorical structure on the fly, and cogently express your observations. One obvious consequence (intended) will be that the common test-prep strategy of using prepared examples goes right out the window.

Another major change is that they will be switching from holistic to analytical grading. You won't just get a single score based on overall impression. You'll get a variety of subscores on different aspects of the essay. Provisionally, they are proposing scores for reading (how well you understand what the source says), analysis (how well you evaluate the author's rhetorical strategies), and writing (how well you express yourself), all on a 1-4 scale. This is a very intriguing change. It will make the job for the readers a bit more demanding, but it will also give substantially more precise feedback on which aspects of the essay are successful.

My gut reaction is that it's going to be substantially more fun to teach the skills for this essay than for the old SAT.

Update: I'd also note that, while there have been some accusations (based on the early announcement) that these revisions amounted to dumbing down the SAT, anyone who tries to claim that with respect to the essay is clearly high. This essay assignment will be unquestionably more demanding and will tap a wider range of skills than the current essay. Preliminarily, I'd also say that the accusation is mistaken across the board, but I'll tackle that point--especially as it relates to changes in vocabulary testing--in a later post.

Part 2 is here.