ACT and SAT: New since 2016

In early 2016, the College Board changed the SAT in substantive ways. Both the structure and the content of the test have been modified.

The new test has been streamlined, though the overall timeframe remains the same. The old test consisted of ten sections, one of which was experimental and thus unscored. The remaining nine sections included an essay, three Critical Reading sections, two Writing sections, and three math. The new SAT has four sections, now called tests (as are the sections of the ACT): a Reading Test, a Writing and Language Test, and two Math tests, one permitting use of a calculator and one without. The new SAT may be taken with or without an essay section.

In addition to revamping the form, the College Board has altered the content. The old Critical Reading featured (1) rather subtle passages with a preponderance of inference questions to assess comprehension and (2) a challenging vocabulary subsection. Now, the passages and the questions are oriented around more basic comprehension of ideas, though the ideas may be sophisticated. The reading comprehension passages in the new SAT are primary sources, pieces of fiction or nonfiction (including scientific discussion) from modern and historical sources. The older sources are intended to be at least somewhat familiar to the majority of students. Many high schoolers will be happy to hear that the vocabulary section has been eliminated. The Writing and Language Test has been recast from individual sentences to narrative essays testing the ability to recognize and fix grammatical errors. The Reading Test has 52 questions (compared with 67 on the three Critical Reading sections), and the Writing and Language Test clocks in at 44 questions (versus 49 on the old test). 

What motivated the change was the growing popularity of the ACT, which has gained widespread acceptance by college admissions offices. While I am glad for many of the revisions, including the end of vocabulary drilling, I wonder at the slowness of the College Board to adapt. The ACT had been making inroads for a decade, to the point that it had made a huge dent in the entrance examination market. Yet it seems that the SAT didn't see what was happening.

I believe that the problem had to do with hubris. The SAT had been THE test for college admissions forever--despite the ACT's traction in the South and Midwest--and occupied a storied place in the culture. It was a rite of passage; one's SAT scores were tantamount to a measure of intelligence (or lack thereof) and the ticket to a secure future. How could a regional upstart like the ACT unseat the SAT?

For the past 40 years, high school has been changing from its reliance on distinct tracks to a more general college readiness approach; thousands more students are entering state universities as a four-year degree has become indispensable. Yes, plenty of high schools offer AP classes and teach canonical texts, but the number of students possessing the advanced word power assumed by the old SAT has dropped. Immigration has also played a role. The ACT has been more in tune with the new test-taking population.

In prepping students for the old SAT, I began to wonder at the choice of the passages. One test featured a comparison of two readings on the persuasive techniques of trial lawyers!

I feel you, David Coleman. As a word freak, I can get how difficult a shift it must have been, from the word power to the evidence-gathering. But the change was welcome and necessary.

I'll talk more on the new essay in another post.