Roy Mehta—Getty Images
By Kaitlin Mulhere
February 19, 2016

High schoolers picking up pencils on March 5 will take a newly redesigned SAT, the result of a massive, multiyear overhaul of the college admissions exam.

What’s changing? Broadly speaking, the new test is supposed to better align with what students should be learning in high school, so that studying for the SAT will reinforce what they’ve studied for classes and reflect skills they’ll actually use after high school.

More specifically, the penalty for guessing has been eliminated, and there are only four answer choices instead of five. The writing section is optional again with a revamped essay prompt based on a reading passage. The vocabulary will focus on less-obscure words. (See more on the vocabulary changes here, including a video in which our staffers struggle to define examples of old SAT.) And the highest total score will be 1600 again, after roughly a decade on a 2400-point scale.

Students should expect more “evidence-based reading”—even in the math section, which will cover fewer concepts but test a deeper level of knowledge.

That text-heavy emphasis, especially in math, has some tutors and educators worried about how prepared students will be for the exam.

Recent stories in The New York Times and The Atlantic have highlighted concerns that the test will penalize students who don’t have access to as many reading materials or those for whom English is a second language. And the wordy, real-world narratives in the math section (see a sample problem below) may confuse students before they have a chance to apply their math skills.

But those concerns don’t reflect what students will actually see on the new exam, counters Cyndie Schmeiser, chief of assessment at College Board. Test writers aimed to make questions as straightforward as possible and paid careful attention to keeping the reading load manageable, especially on the math section, she says.

Individual reading passages are shorter, students have slightly more time per question on the reading section, and the total average number of words, 3,250, is in line with the previous version of the test. There also are roughly the same number of real-world application problems on the math section, Schmeiser says. She adds that the College Board announced the changes well in advance, has released test questions, and offers free practice materials to help students prepare.

“I think they’re going to feel far more comfortable with this test because it’s going to feel familiar,” she says.

Schmeiser didn’t say whether fewer test takers have signed up for this March exam, compared with previous years, but insists that reviews from sophomores and juniors who took the similarly redesigned PSAT have been “extraordinarily positive.”

Time of transition

For the next couple of years, most colleges will accept scores from both the old version—SATs taken in January 2016 or earlier—and the new one. Colleges and high school counselors will be able compare scores between the two versions, using a table published by the College Board, and students who take the new version will have access to more in-depth information about what their score means, including where they fall compared to other test takers.

Criticism that the SAT favors the wealthy and doesn’t accurately predict a student’s potential has been around for years. But it has gained greater attention in recent years, as more and more colleges have embraced test optional admissions policies.

A preliminary study by the College Board of the redesigned SAT showed a positive relationship between SAT scores and college grades, according to a report. The organization also will conduct a major study of the 2017-18 freshman class to test how well test scores predict college performance.

That’s the ultimate question around the redesigned exam—and it will take a several years of admissions data to get an answer.

Want to know exactly what to expect on the exam? The College Board has a section-by-section guide to prepare you.

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