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The Redesigned SAT: New Math ― Sunny Skies, or Ominous Clouds?

Last Updated: Jan 28, 2015 9:46:00 AM

Math Learning Center - Score At The Top 

Having followed intimately for many decades the changes in SAT form and content, I am feeling rather ambivalent today about the new Common Core-inspired math questions that the College Board has released in their test overhaul preview.

In my opinion, there are questions and solutions that fall beyond the reach of average or even slightly above-average math students. The new questions require significantly more reading ― quite a chore for a student with a language-based disability ― and more thinking than the old ones.

The math test content may assume too much about what today’s high school students learn in the classroom. An example is margin of error. Margin of error is introduced in statistics, not in algebra, geometry, or even trigonometry; yet, it's included as an "easy" math question among the sample 48 questions recently made public by the College Board.

Further, while the current SAT allows for a calculator, there's not a single question on today’s exam that actually "requires" the use of calculator; however, at least one of the new sample math questions (# 24 in the “calculator permitted” section) would be nearly impossible to solve without one – there are numerous steps plus a significant amount of computation required. In this question, the test-taker is asked to find the volume of a lug nut. Sound simple? Hmmmmm. First the test-taker must calculate the volume of a hexagonal solid ― a formula which the test-taker must derive and which requires calculating (not estimating!) the value of √3 . The next steps require calculating and subtracting the volume of a cylinder (which involves converting π to 3.14, not merely estimating it as 3+). Finally, the test-taker must substitute that difference into the density formula to find the mass of a lug nut. Whew! Took me over a minute to answer this “medium” difficulty question and I knew exactly what to do! This question has many multi-step companions among the sample math questions released by College Board ― far more than I would have anticipated

The College Board’s explicit commitment now to "real world" math sounds wonderful at first blush. However, in its current form as exemplified in the recently released sample questions, most students will struggle to apply theory in practical ways as demanded in a question. Modeling real-world situations with algebraic formulas can be a complex task even for a gifted math student. I wonder whether students understand what the slope of a line actually measures when that line is incorporated into a real-life application ― such as population growth over time (question #2 in the “calculator not permitted” section, and also categorized as “easy”).

Another shift I noticed from the current math questions to those on the redesigned test is the increase in frequency and length of word problems. In their avowed effort to bring math questions “to life” via real-world applicability, the College Board seems to have increased the scope of one of high school students’ least favorite math class features: the word problem. Seems to be more of a “reading” test than a math test.

In all fairness to the College Board, I have to admit that I found several of the “medium” and “hard” questions ridiculously easy ― such as problems involving arithmetic with imaginary numbers, two-variable equations, trigonometric functions, and work problems (full disclosure: math nerd that I am, I loved work problems in high school).

Since the College Board won’t release a new SAT study guide until June, I'm hesitant to recommend the new SAT to my college-counseling sophomore clients. I want sufficient time to review the tests with my test-prep staff. In the meantime, I’m sure we'll provide significantly more hours of ACT prep than SAT prep in 2016! In its bid to catch up to ACT, the College Board may well have shot itself in the foot!

Topics: SAT Test Test-Prep


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