Education News

Students Get Glimpse Of New SAT Format: Five Tips To Know

The new test does away with obscure vocabulary, makes the essay optional and doesn’t penalize students for guessing.

screenshot of Writing and Language sample question
Writing and Language sample questions.

Here’s a question that some teenagers and their parents were happy not to answer at a recent study session at Elkins High School in Fort Bend.

It even tripped up college counselor Kelly Fox a little.

“Does anyone know what prevar — prevaricate means? Anybody? Do you know what it means?” Fox asked.

It technically means to avoid telling the truth by not answering a question directly.

But Fox had good news for this auditorium full of future test-takers.

This kind of obscure vocabulary is disappearing from the SAT.

It’s one of several sweeping changes that the classic college entrance exam will debut next spring. School districts across Greater Houston have started to get parents and students familiar with the changes at information sessions. And thousands of students got a glimpse of the changes first hand, when they take the PSAT this week, kind of a rehearsal for the exam. 

At this session in the Fort Bend Independent School District, Fox gave a run-down of the five things students need to know about the new SAT, starting with the vocabulary.

It’s moving from those obscure words to more relevant language.

“Students will need to be able to read closely to figure out the meaning of the word in context. So they’re really going to have to use some analytical skills,” Fox said.

The second thing is the math focus is also shifting. Her colleague Steve Shiels, director of Fort Bend’s college and career readiness, picked that one up.

“There’s going to be a section called ‘Passport to Advanced Math’ and it’s going to be less like advanced, advanced algebra II and more the algebra core,” he said.

Next on the list: The essay will be optional, and there’s no penalty for guessing.

“They’re able to narrow down their answers and make an educated guess on what they think is the best answer,” Shiels said.

The last thing to know is that students can practice for free with Khan Academy. The online education nonprofit is teaming up with the SAT’s creator, the College Board, to give more access to study tools, which the test prep market often sells at a premium. 

Parents like Gulzar Panjwani were excited about those tools. She attended the session for her son Adam. He’s in tenth grade and had to stay home to finish his homework.

“I’m going to tell him to go explore Khan Academy and see how it goes, and if he needs additional help, sure, we’ll do that that. Because that’s the best investment, right? Education!” Panjwani said.

She takes that investment seriously. She sat on the first row with a clipboard on her lap and iPhone in hand to take lots of notes and snap pictures.

The session calmed her nerves though not entirely.

“Well, a little anxiety is there because it’s a big thing for college admissions,” she said.

According to the test creators, students and their parents shouldn’t stress too much.

“The best preparation for the redesigned SAT is simply to take and work hard in courses in high school,” said Cyndie Schmeiser, chief of assessment for the College Board, which administers the SAT.

She said that the College Board revamped the exam for the first time in a decade because of some troubling statistics. They realized that fewer than half of students who take SAT are actually ready for college, and that that number is not improving. And the majority of low-income students who are ready don’t apply for schools within their reach.

“These statistics to us are a call to action that we must do something different and we must do something better,” Schmeiser said.

Not everyone considers the new test better. 

“Major cosmetic surgery, but nothing that changes the fundamental nature of the test,” said Bob Schaeffer with the watchdog group FairTest.

“None of those changes will improve the test’s capacity to predict who will be successful in college and none of those changes will make the test fairer for groups that have historically been excluded by fair test scores,” he said.

Schaeffer maintains that college admissions officers don’t need the new SAT, or its competitor the ACT – or any entrance exam for that matter.

His group advocates that there are better ways to evaluate students than standardized test scores. And he’s tracked more than 800 colleges that have made those tests optional.



Laura Isensee

Education Reporter

Laura Isensee covers education for Houston Public Media, including K-12 and higher education. Previously, she was a staff reporter at The Miami Herald and contributed to South Florida’s NPR affiliate. Her work has also appeared in The Dallas Morning News, Reuters and Clarín in Argentina. Laura has won awards for...

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