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Will the new SAT be easier than the old one? A look at what the new test could look like

A student uses a Princeton Review SAT Preparation book to study for the SAT in March 2014 in Pembroke Pines, Florida. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)
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The College Board just released a sample of its revised PSAT, or the Preliminary SAT/ National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, which is taken by some 3.5 million high school students each year. The PSAT does not count for college admissions, but is important for students hoping to win a National Merit Scholarship. And because the PSAT and the SAT use the same style of questions, this gives us a chance to see what the new SAT — which is being unveiled in 2016 — will look like. This post does just that. It was written by James S. Murphy, who has been prepping students for the SAT for almost two decades.  He lives in Boston and is a tutoring manager for The Princeton Review. The views represented here are his own.

By James S. Murphy

Like a hip new restaurant using a soft opening, the College Board has quietly released a sample PSAT on its website to no fanfare or press at all. In most years, this would be a non-event. The PSAT score, after all, plays no role in college admissions. It only matters for the less than 0.5% of test takers who qualify for the National Merit and a few other scholarships.

This year, however, is different. It was a little over a year ago that College Board announced it was redesigning the SAT, and in a little less than a year the new SAT will be administered for the first time. This sample PSAT is important because it gives us a chance to see what the new SAT might look like, given that the two tests are related in content. We will not get a chance to see what the new SAT looks like until this June, when the College Board is expected to release four sample revised SATs.By then, many students and parents will be deciding whether to take

A)    the new version of the SAT in the spring of their junior year
B)    the current version of the SAT in the fall of their junior year
C)     both versions of the SAT
D)    the ACT whenever they like
E)     all of the above

This choice matters, which is why it is important to use the release of this PSAT as a good occasion to take stock of what we know about the redesigned SAT:

1. There is no need to hit the panic button. When the College Board published some sample questions in January, the math questions looked fairly different from traditional SAT questions, but because they were not part of a full test it was hard to know how representative they were. For instance, how many questions like the following would there be and how much time would students have to complete it under it under timed conditions?

An international bank issues its Traveler credit cards worldwide. When a customer makes a purchase using a Traveler card in a currency different from the customer’s home currency, the bank converts the purchase price at the daily foreign exchange rate and then charges a 4% fee on the converted cost.
Sara lives in the United States, but is on vacation in India. She used her Traveler card for a purchase that cost 602 rupees (Indian currency.) The bank posted a charge of $9.88 to her account that included the 4% fee.
A bank in India sells a prepaid credit card worth 7,500 rupees. Sara can buy the prepaid card using dollars at the daily exchange rate with no fee, but she will lose any money left unspent on the prepaid card. What is the least number of the 7,500 rupees on the prepaid card Sara must spend for the prepaid card to be cheaper than charging all her purchases on the Traveler card? Round your answer to the nearest whole number of rupees.                                                                                                                                                                             College Board

You may now exhale. There are still hard questions on the math, some of them testing concepts left out of the old SAT, such as basic trigonometry, but there are no questions on the sample PSAT like this multi-part, 173-word beast (for a point of reference, college application essays are about 500-600 words). There are two math sections, a short one during which examinees cannot use a calculator, followed by a long one (45 minutes) during which they can. The good news on the math is that, as promised, the new format tests fewer questions and goes deeper on them, so students may no longer need to learn or relearn esoterica such as permutations and combinations.

2. There’s even better news on the reading front. The reading section just got easier, as long as you don’t pass out. On the new PSAT, the “Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Score” will be based on a one-hour long reading comprehension section and a 35-minute grammar section. With the elimination of sentence completions, there is no vocabulary of note on this PSAT. I repeat: none. The College Board is being being true to its word, testing Tier 2 rather than Tier 3 words, so goodbye “treacly,” hello “post.”

Four choices make reading comprehension inherently easier, as does the shift toward more straightforward answer choices. Finally, the incorporation of a grammar section into the reading score—on the current model SAT, the writing and reading scores are distinct—gives students a fast way to raise their reading score. In my experience as a tutor, students routinely improve more on the Writing section of the current SAT than on the other two sections. Unfortunately, many colleges and universities currently do not consider the writing score equally with the math and reading. That will change with the new SAT. The sole downside–and it could be a big one–of the new reading section is that it is so long. On the current SAT, the reading sections are 20-25 minutes. This new PSAT reading section is almost as long as the reading comprehension on the MCAT. One hour of reading comprehension is going to crush some kids; it will probably make kids with extended time wish they were literally being crushed.

3. As many commentators have noted, the changes to the SAT are likely motivated in part by the ACT moving past the SAT in the number of students who take it each year. We now know that many of those changes aim to turn the SAT into something resembling a copy of the ACT. The new PSAT mimics the format of the ACT’s English test to a startling degree, and many of the new math concepts it tests historically appeared only on the ACT. Like the ACT, the new PSAT does not penalize wrong answers. Like the ACT, the new test has four answer choices. There is one big difference between the two tests, however. The new PSAT has no science section, and it is the science section that many students struggle with on the ACT. The College Board has incorporated graphs into the PSAT, but they are split between the math and the reading and make many fewer demands on time and concentration than do the ACT’s graphs.

4. The new SAT might be a good thing. Yes, I did shudder writing that. Up to now, I’ve been telling people to think about taking the old SAT or the ACT, since we don’t know that much about the new SAT. I stand by that position, for now. Based on the sample PSAT — for which the College Board did not release a scoring grid — the new SAT could turn out to be easier than both the ACT and the current SAT. The math might have a few more advanced concepts on the new test, but with fewer concepts tested overall than the current SAT or the ACT and an increased number of opportunities to use the single most powerful standardized testing technique—plugging in—the math might be ultimately be easier for many test takers.

The reading appears to be on par with the ACT and easier than the current SAT, particularly since grammar now makes up part of the score. The big difference between the new SAT and the ACT is that the SAT does not have the science section, which for many students is the hardest part of the ACT. Test-takers absolutely need to be familiar with the ACT science section before they take the real test. Students taking the new format of the SAT will not have the same issue, at least not to the same degree. (If I were more cynical, I might even think that College Board left a science section off the SAT precisely to get more teenagers to take it.) It is too soon to say, but once the new sample tests come out we will need to determine whether the new SAT is actually going to be easier than the current version and the ACT.

5. Test Prep Is (still) Not Going Anywhere. Test prep companies, like the one I work for, thrive on the flaws and idiosyncrasies of standardized tests. As long as colleges insist on students taking high-stakes, timed, multiple-choice tests, test prep will be there to help students get ready for an exam unlike any of the tests that they take in school. We will introduce them to techniques—e.g., getting rid of wrong answers rather than picking right one or plugging numbers into algebra questions so they work like basic arithmetic—that simply do not work in a real math or reading class but which work brilliantly on the SAT and the ACT, and which look like they will work even more brilliantly on the revised SAT.

6. The Class of 2017 has options. Before I looked at this test, I was advising students and their parents to think hard about getting the SAT done before the changeover to the new test in March 2016 or about simply opting for the ACT. In recent weeks, dozens of colleges have confirmed with me that they will take the current or redesigned SAT from the class of 2017, although not all schools have decided, so it is important to call their admissions officers before choosing to get testing done before March 2016.

Now, I am not so sure that the new SAT won’t be the best choice for students with the drive to get to know the test and the discipline to practice it. My recommendation is to take one of the practice tests that the College Board releases this summer along with an old format SAT and an ACT. Yes, it’s a lot of tests to take just to decide which one you are going to take for real, but better to take the time over the summer and enter into the admissions exam gauntlet eyes wide open than to opt for the new SAT by default.