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What's New in the New SAT

The New SAT differs from the Old SAT in multiple ways, so without further ado…


General Changes

Instead of scores of 200 – 800 for each of reading, writing, and math that were present in the Old SAT, in the New SAT there are only two scores of 200 – 800, one for math and another for reading and writing combined, even though reading and writing (now called “Writing and Language) are presented as separate sections..

While the Old SAT was presented as 10 sections (an essay, three for math, three for reading, two for writing, and one experimental), now there are only five (the optional essay, one reading, one writing, and two math, one allowing calculator use and one prohibiting calculator use.

While the time allocated to the New SAT is about the same as it was for the Old SAT, that’s only if the now-optional essay is included.

Another important change is that the College Board has eliminated the ¼-point penalty for answering a question incorrectly, and that’s changed scoring. On the Old SAT, because of that ¼-point penalty, guessing randomly on all of the questions would yield an extremely low score — 230 (roughly the first percentile of all students) — just as one would expect. But in the New SAT, guessing randomly on all of the questions should result in getting 25% of the answers right, and that would equate to a math score of 360 (roughly in the ninth percentile of all students). And that’s a BIG difference.

Graphic literacy – the ability to understand and answer questions concerning charts and graphs – is another general change: Charts, graphs, and questions concerning them might appear in any or all of the New SAT’s math, reading, and writing sections.



Now has two sections, one of which doesn’t permit use of a calculator.

Is much, much more difficult because of the math skills being assessed and the manner in which the questions are presented.

The New SAT’s math focuses on three areas, and algebra is the king:

Heart of Algebra, which focuses on the mastery of linear equations and systems.

Problem Solving and Data Analysis, which is about being quantitatively literate.

Passport to Advanced Math, which features questions that require the manipulation of complex equations.

The emphasis on algebra comes at the cost of de-emphasis on geometry. Geometry questions constitute only 6% of the New SAT’s math questions, compared to 24% of the Old SAT’s questions, and, as we’ve said many times before, “Without geometry, life would be pointless.”


The New SAT’s substantially changed Reading section, in addition to collapsing all of the reading passages and questions into a single section, instead of the three that were present in the Old SAT, does away with the between five and eight sentence completion questions that led each of the Old SAT’s reading sections.

Gone are the questions testing knowledge of arcane vocabulary words that students might not encounter again a single time in the rest of their lives: For example, “treacly” (look it up) was the target word in one of the Old SAT Official Guide’s practice tests. But that doesn’t mean vocabulary isn’t going to be tested in the New SAT, because it will.

The differences are that vocabulary in the New SAT will be tested in a far lower percentage of the questions asked than was true in the Old SAT, the words tested will be – generally, anyway – more commonly used than was true previously, and they’ll be tested “in context” as the words are used in the long passages that now dominate the New SAT’s reading section. Questions that read, “As it’s used in line __, which of the following choices best describes the intended meaning of “_______?” are common, and they’re common for passages for which the peak words per sentence are far higher than is the case with recent ACT practice tests..

We qualified part of our above statement with “generally, anyway,” and the reason that we did so is that some of the vocabulary tested (for example, “brazier,” “betook,” and “discomfiture”) is going to be drawn from older texts with which very few students will be familiar.

We also want to note that it appears that some of the reading passages in each of the New SAT tests will be significantly harder than anything that’s appeared in any Old SATs and any ACTs – and that at least one of the passages could be very hard and will possibly approach or reach the 14th grade level – that’s right, the college sophomore level – in difficulty.

Last, all of the passages in the New SAT’s reading section contains what the College Board refers to as “Command of Evidence” questions. Those questions follow others and ask which of four different sections of a passage support the student’s answer to the previous question. Naturally, if the student answered the previous question incorrectly, the chance of finding support in the passage for that answer is rather small. Still, these questions are simple and test only whether or not the students have comprehended what they’ve just read and can cite the germane portions of the text.


What the Old SAT called the Writing section, the New SAT calls the Writing and Language Test, but, since writing that’s devoid of language would be better described as scribbling or doodling, nothing is gained by that name change…

…which is not to say that nothing else has changed except for the name, because almost everything has changed.

The Old SAT’s two writing sections each contained sentence improvement questions, and the first of those sections contained multiple sentence error identification questions. For the New SAT, both of those types of questions are present in the single Writing and Language Test, and it emulates the ACT’s English test so well that the two are substantively identical…

…except for the “science-ie” questions the College Board has slipped into its Writing and Language Test – probably so that it can claim (spuriously) to test science knowledge – and the charts and graphs that might appear to test (again questionably) “graphic literacy.”

Here’s an example of a Writing and Language Test question that involves a graph:


According to the College Board, the New SAT’s Writing and Language Test asks students to be editors “and improve passages that were written especially for the test — and that include deliberate errors.” The students are to read, find mistakes and weaknesses, and then fix them.

The CB states that questions for New SAT’s Writing and Language Test fall into one of these five categories:

Command of Evidence questions that ask the students to “improve the way passages develop information and ideas.”

Words in Context questions that ask the students “to choose the best words to use based on the text surrounding them.”

Analysis in History/Social Studies and in Science questions that ask students to “read passages about topics in history, social studies, and science with a critical eye and make editorial decisions that improve them.”

Note that reading comprehension is once again heavily stressed in this part of the New SAT.

Expression of Ideas questions that ask students to choose “which words or structural changes improve how well it [a passage] makes its point and how well its sentences and paragraphs work together.”

Standard English Conventions questions that test for basic knowledge of our language’s accepted grammar, punctuation, and syntax.

We’re going to close with two other examples of how much reading comprehension impacts the New SAT’s Writing and Language Test:

The New SAT’s Writing and Language Test contains “words in context” vocabulary questions that are virtually identical in what they appear to test to the same types of questions in the New SAT’s Reading Test. The “words in context” questions those two tests could be interchanged and nobody would be the wiser.

The New SAT’s Writing and Language Test passages significantly exceed the complexity of comparable passages in the ACT’s English sections.


On its website, the College Board says the following to students about New SAT’s Essay:

What You’ll Do

  • Read a passage.
  • Explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience.
  • Support your explanation with evidence from the passage.”

Going all the way back to the dawn of time, Question #2 in every one of the College Board’s AP ENGLISH LANGUAGE AND COMPOSITION FREE-RESPONSE QUESTIONShas tasked students to do virtually the same thing.


For the New SAT sample Essay #1 on its website, the CB chose to use a piece written by Paul Bogard and instructs students thusly:


As you read the passage below, consider how Paul Bogard uses

  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.”

and then

“Write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument [uses rhetorical devices] to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved. In your essay, analyze how Bogard uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument.”

The CB’s instructions for the sample New SAT Essay #2 on its website are identical, except that the name Dana Gioia, who authored the second sample’s passage, is substituted for Paul Bogard’s name.

For Question #2 in the CB’s 2015 AP EL&C FREE-RESPONSE QUESTIONS, the CB chose to use a passage excerpted from a Cesar Chavez “article in the magazine of a religious organization devoted to helping those in need.” The CB instructs students to “Read the following excerpt from the article carefully. Then, in a well-written essay, analyze the rhetorical choices Chavez makes to develop his argument about nonviolent resistance.”

Switch out the names, the thrust, and the authors of the source documents, and the CB’s instruction to students were virtually identical for its AP EL&C FREE-RESPONSE QUESTIONs #2 in 2014, and 2013, and 2012, and 2011, and 2010, and…

So, it should be clear that students who’ve taken AP EL&Comp and done at least reasonably well on the Question #2 (rhetorical analysis) part of the test have a distinct “leg up” on others when it comes to writing the New SAT’s Essay.

We’re going to close with a discussion of “‘Optional or Not.” Unlike in the Old SAT, the CB doesn’t care whether students complete the New SAT’s Essay or don’t, so in that sense, it’s optional. But the CB isn’t going to be applying to any schools, much less schools that consider the New SAT Essay to be mandatory. So, it behooves students to be absolutely certain that they’ll never be applying to any school that requires the New SAT Essay before deciding to opt out of completing it.

The Ivy League schools are a good example of why students must research the necessity of completing the New SAT’s Essay for every school to which they might apply: As of last fall, Yale, Harvard. Princeton, and Dartmouth were in the “must complete” camp, while Columbia, Cornell, Brown, and U Penn took the opposite stance – and Stanford chimed in from the left coast with a “should submit” opinion.

The difference between the “yes” and “no” camps concerns how the New SAT Essay does, doesn’t, will, or won’t equate with tasks the students will face and with the students’ general performances at the college level, and much of that is pure conjecture. But because a lot of the people who have diametrically opposed opinions on this issue are far smarter than we are, we’ve chosen to demur on putting in our one-cent’s worth – other than to advise students to do what’s required by the colleges to which they might be applying, keep their rooms clean, and eat whatever their mothers cook for them.