We recently came across this interesting piece by the New York Times regarding the New SAT’s increased focus on the verbal/reading side of academics. While it’s true there is a longitudinal incorporation of English across the test, overall, we feel like the exam is smoothing out its English biases to become more balanced.
Just a quick refresher before we dive into analyzing the NYT article, here is a rundown of how the New SAT differs from the old. For the old exam, there were three main sections: reading, writing, and math, with the sum of all three sections comprising your overall composite score. On the new exam, however, there are just two sections: the Reading Test and the Math Test, with an optional essay. In this respect, College Board shifted from a 2/3 English, 1/3 Math to a 1/2 English, 1/2 Math test. For students who might struggle with English, which as the Times points out includes immigrants and the poor, this basic shift in scoring improves the odds of doing well.
Now onto the article! The Times cites College Board as saying that the overall word density remains the same, specifically that
The College Board said that the number of words in the reading section had remained the same — about 3,250 on the new test, and 3,300 on the old one — and that the percentage of word problems in the math sections of the old and the new test was roughly the same, about 30 percent.
But they then follow up with the analysis that
[O]utside analysts say the way the words are presented makes a difference. For instance, short sentence-completion questions, which tested logic and vocabulary, have been eliminated in favor of longer reading passages
Since 1991, Testmasters has prepared hundreds of thousands of students, and most who struggled with the reading portion of the SAT had particular trouble with the Sentence Completion section. In this particular section, students were expected to memorize needlessly esoteric vocabulary words, words which many students had never encountered and would likely never use again. By doing away with this section, College Board has actually made it so that English-poor students have a better shot at performing well. Though there is an emphasis on the word-dense passages, we’d argue that this makes the Reading Test more manageable as the answers are decipherable, as opposed to the “you either know it or you don’t” of Sentence Completion.
The Times also points out the new wordiness of the Math Section, but it’s important to remember that word problems still only comprise roughly 30% of the Math Test. What the Times points out is the convoluted incorporation of scientific knowledge into this section. They write
“An anthropologist studies a woman’s femur that was uncovered in Madagascar,” one question began. She knew a femur was a leg bone, but was not sure about “anthropologist.” She was contemplating “Madagascar” just as she remembered her teacher’s advice to concentrate on the essential, which, she decided, was the algebraic equation that came next, h = 60 + 2.5f, where h stood for height and f stood for the length of the femur.
“I feel like they put in a lot of unnecessary words,” she said.
Indeed, the student mentioned here is correct! There are a lot of unnecessary words here, but that’s no different from the old SAT. As we’ve taught for decades, much of the text within wordy math problems is useless, and only there to slow you down. For these “word problems that aren’t word problems,” the heavy text is there to distract you, as they usually give superfluous information or describe charts or graphs you’re already able to interpret. Though College Board may throw in random physics equations or chemical processes, remember that this is in fact the math section and ignore all of that! Once you realize that the scientific text-heavy problems are all smoke and mirrors, you’ll easily fly through these problems.
All in all, we believe that the SAT is de-emphasizing English rather than emphasizing it. Though on the surface it might seem that College Board is making it more difficult for English-poor students, they are in fact evening the odds by removing the needlesssly complex vocabulary sections and weighting the Reading Test the same as the Math Test.