Class of 2017: The SAT Dilemma

Founder and Owner, Tier One Tutors

Jun   2015



Here we are, already at the end of the school year. Current juniors are approaching the end of the semester and are frantically prepping for standardized tests and finals. Seniors are rolling toward graduation, excited to move on to the next step in their academic and life journeys.

Sophomores, on the other hand, are just starting to realize that they have a real problem on their hands: what should they do about the change in the SAT?

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For the first time in over a decade, the SAT is changing. However, this is not the same type of change we experienced back in 2005 when the test was last altered.

Alterations vs. change

Back then, when the College Board announced the introduction of the current SAT, a lot of people voiced nervousness about the changes it contained. However, when the exam was made public, the test prep world took a collective sigh of relief. It turned out that the SAT wasn’t changing so much as it was being altered.

What does that mean? It means the test experienced two things: additions and omissions. Anything that had been in the old test that stuck around in the new test remained essentially the same.

The first alteration was that the College Board added the old SAT II Writing Test to the new SAT. This was no big deal: The SAT II Writing Test was a known quantity that had been around for decades.

The second alteration was one of omission. The College Board removed two sections of the exam: Analogies and Quantitative Comparisons. The test prep world rejoiced because instead of replacing these questions with “new” types, they were simply replaced with more of what was already on the test.

That was then. What we are about to experience now is a fundamentally different SAT: change, not mere alteration.

David Coleman is the current President of the College Board and the mastermind behind the new test. What few people realize is that Coleman is also well known in educational circles as the "architect” of the new Common Core that is being rolled out at thousands of schools across the country. When Coleman was brought in by the College Board, he had an agenda, and he made his opinions heard very quickly. Just as his disgust with the state of education in America’s schools led him to spearhead the design of a new way of educating children (i.e., the Common Core), so too he found the SAT to be distasteful and unhelpful and vowed to create a new exam. Lo and behold, the more we learn about the revised SAT, it more it looks like Coleman created the new exam to align with the Common Core standards he helped bring to America’s schools.

It is important to understand this: we are not experiencing a slight, superficial alteration in the SAT this time around. Instead, Coleman has insured that the exam as we know it will cease to exist as of March of 2016, only 11 short months away. Instead, just like millions of students and educators are trying to adapt to Coleman’s Common Core, so too we will need to adapt to an SAT that is meant to reflect students' skills vis à vis those new standards.

Students and parents need to make a concrete plan to manage this change. Essentially, there are four main options of how to deal with the new SAT.

Option 1: Take the current SAT early

The current SAT will be given for the last time on January 23, 2016. That means that the Class of 2017 will have the chance to take the exam up until that time. This is important to keep in mind. Unlike the new exam, the current SAT is a known quantity. Everything you could ever want to know or understand about the exam is well known. I can comfortably tell you how many Algebra II questions will be on the exam, how many styles and types of Passage-Based Reading questions there will be, and even what the most dramatic curve has looked like in the last 10 years. This information is invaluable for students who are prepping.

Current sophomores, unlike their older peers, should consider taking the SAT in November, December, and January of 11th grade. Many parents and educators will throw up their hands immediately in dismay at that statement, as it is “clear” that students must have completed Algebra 2 (or at least most of it) in order to succeed on the exam. However, that is simply untrue.

The SAT always contains between four to six Algebra 2/Trig questions on each test out of 54 total Math questions. By the January 23 exam, most students will have just finished the first semester of school. That means students who are in Algebra 2 as 11th graders (which is the typical level of math for a high school junior) will be 50% done learning the material. Theoretically, that means only half of the Algebra 2 questions should contain unfamiliar material—in other words, two or three total SAT questions. For the overwhelming majority of students, these two or three questions will not have a statistically significant impact on their scores.

For those parents and educators who still struggle with this concept, keep in mind that the majority of 11th graders take the SAT in March of junior year, just six weeks after the January exam. In those six weeks it is fair to say there is nearly zero chance that students will learn information that would show up on even one SAT question, let alone two or three. Therefore, the January exam essentially provides students with as much opportunity for success as the March exam.

This means that students should look at that January exam as an amazing opportunity. For years, parents and students have been fearful of the dramatic impact that the new SAT will have on students' academic careers. Now there is room to feel hope; as long as a student starts early enough, there is a fine chance they can finish preparing by January of 11th grade and still manage to get one last shot at taking the current SAT.

Option 2: Take the new SAT

The next option is to take the new SAT at the same time of year as students always have: March and June of 11th grade. The argument here would be that although the SAT will be new, since it is scored on a curve and it will be new for everyone, that means we will all be in the same boat and therefore no one will have more of an advantage or disadvantage than anyone else.

If students opt to go this route, they can still prepare by reading voraciously, learning vocabulary, and studying and working hard in their high school classes, much as they did for the “old” SAT. The College Board offers sample questions from the new SAT and more details here, and Khan Academy partnered with them to offer free test prep. Students can also take both the old and new SAT during this period and submit the higher score, but, as noted in this BloombergBusiness article, “this may be tricky because scaling and percentiles may not be available for the first test administration.”

The new SAT is so new that it contains unknowns even to test prep companies, so students who might have enrolled in a professional course will not necessarily get the same benefits from their tutors as they would have in the past. Although I have no doubt that we will crack the code of this new exam, I don’t know that it will happen in time for the very first administration of it this coming March. Realistically, parts of the program will need to be adapted and altered as time goes on and we learn more about student behavior and the format of the test. That means that although our students will be in the same boat as everyone else, they could be losing a small part of the competitive advantage.

Option 3: Take the ACT

Many counselors, tutors, and admission experts have offered a more simple solution to the SAT dilemma: just take the ACT. Although on the surface this seems like an easy fix, it’s not a perfect one.

The new SAT, though more grounded in “real-world” math and vocab than before and therefore more akin to the ACT, still appears to be the more abstract of the two tests, testing critical thinking and analytical skills. Just as before, there are students who will perform better on the SAT than the ACT and vice versa. Given that fact, simply telling all students to take the ACT and not worry about it is simply unfair.

For the last few years, when we've met students trying to decide between the ACT and the SAT, we've presented them with a simple solution: go ahead and take an officially released practice exam for each test, then look at the ACT/SAT Concordance Chart (the official conversion chart used by all American universities), and students will have a strong sense of which exam they will perform better on.

Option 4: Compromise

Like most situations in life, the answer is probably to compromise. We will be advising our students that they will need to work a bit harder than usual next year. We will strongly encourage all of our juniors to prepare for the January 23rd SAT. If they are not able to prepare that quickly, or their score is still lackluster, we will then switch to ACT prep for the April and June exams. If that does not go a student’s way, then they can spend the entire summer prepping for the new SAT in October and November of their senior year.

Although that sounds like a lot of work, it is also a worst-case scenario. Most students will not struggle on both the January SAT and the June ACT after preparation. And if that happens, it will be okay because they will still have many months available to study for the new SAT. That time around, they will not be the guinea pigs. Instead, they will be taking the fourth and fifth administrations of the exam.

All in all, I understand that the changes to the SAT next year are pretty nerve-wracking. However, although this sounds like extra work and extra stress, the takeaway here is that this problem is absolutely beatable. Like my father always taught me, keep in mind the six P’s: Proper Prior Practice Prevents Poor Performance!


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About Steve Dorfman

Steve Dorfman is the founder and owner of Tier One Tutors. Over the past decade, he has trained over 300 SAT and ACT instructors, authored three SAT coursebooks, managed the preparation for over 10,000 students and has lectured at dozens of high schools. As a UCLA graduate, Steve understands just how difficult and confusing the college admissions process can be. Plus, as a father of two, he can relate to the worry and anxiety that parents feel when trying to steer their child towards a path of success.