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The Redesigned SAT

In 2016, Connecticut’s 11th graders will be required by the state to take the Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT). This will be the first year in which the test is mandated, and it will also be the first administration of an updated version of the SAT. In March, the College Board will debut a Redesigned SAT that is shorter in length, narrower in scope, and better aligned to the Common Core State Standards. Although these changes bode well for all students, the “newness” of the exam is likely to incite some trepidation among pupils and their families.

Just what can students, teachers, and families expect from the SAT next spring? Read on for the rationale of this redesign effort, explanations of precisely what will look new and different, and resources for teachers, families, and students.

The Rationale for Change

In 2011, College Board established a college- and career-readiness benchmark score of 1550 for high school students. This score—calculated using a sample of nearly 68,000 students at 110 four-year colleges and universities—is based on students’ probability of earning a first-year GPA of 2.67 (B-) or higher. As you can see in the chart below, college readiness by this benchmark has remained stagnant since 2009 among test takers across the nation


For College Board, these statistics raised questions about the impact of the SAT. It may have been making predictions, but was it actually helping students to achieve more? One of the primary reasons that College Board devised a plan to overhaul its suite of assessments was to provide students with more support and more opportunities for productive practice. The plan was to help students to increase the likelihood of being prepared for college and/or career.

The Redesigned SAT

The College Board formulated three goals for a redesigned SAT:

  1. Focus on fewer topics, those that are statistically proven to matter most in college;
  2. Better align content with classroom instruction; and
  3. Increase clarity and transparency so that students, educators, and families know what to expect on the exam.

On this year’s SAT, although the new SAT will really be assessing a narrower scope of competencies that are linked to success and aligned to the Common Core, the questions will cover a wider array of content. Students will also see questions related to science, history, and social studies, presented through the lens of the traditionally tested subjects of math and English. Literacy in math and English involves using it successfully in different contexts.

The Redesigned SAT also aims to focus on the content that students are expected to learn in the classroom, which helps clarify exactly what students must know and be able to do in order to practice for, and perform well on, the exam.

The new exam will also change the way in which it presents questions, summarized by eight “key shifts”:

(1) relevant words in context; (2) command of evidence; (3) essay analyzing a source; (4) focus on math that matters most; (5) problems grounded in real-world contexts; (6) analysis in science, history, and social studies; (7) founding documents and great global conversations; and (8) no penalty for wrong answers.

 Relevant Words in Context

The new exam phases out esoteric “SAT words” in favor of more common vocabulary words that students are likely to use more consistently. This shift means students no longer need to memorize hundreds of words that they will never see again. Instead, they will be asked to interpret simpler words based upon their context. Questions assessing this skill will combine the critical reading and writing components of the previous SAT.

Example 1

Command of Evidence

Items assessing this skill present evidence in a variety of formats, including text, charts, and graphs, and appear in both the Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing portions of the exam. Students are tasked with interpreting, synthesizing, and using evidence to support their answer choices.

Example 2

 Essay Analyzing a Source

The optional essay closely mirrors college-level writing assignments, and requires students to engage in close reading, perform careful analysis, and articulate their answers clearly thorough writing.  In stark contrast to essay writing on the old SAT, students in 2016 will be asked to analyze an author’s work and the merits of the author’s opinion–rather than positing and defending their personal opinions.

Example 3

Math Focused on Three Key Areas

The Redesigned SAT narrows the focus of math content to those topics that research shows contribute most to college success. Those topics include:

  1. “Heart of Algebra” (Algebra I), which assesses mastery of linear equations;
  2. “Passport to Advanced Math” (Algebra II), which focuses on students’ familiarity with more complex multistep algebraic equations; and
  3. “Problem Solving and Data Analysis,” which tests students’ quantitative literacy using data and statistical analysis.

These topics comprise 90% of the Math section; the remaining 10% tests students’ proficiency in geometry, trigonometry, and other areas of math.

Some portions of the Math section permit students to use calculators, while others prohibit their use.

Example 4

Problems Grounded in Real-World Contexts

This shift places questions directly in contexts students are likely to encounter in college and in their careers, and requires multistep applications to solve problems. Questions include visual representations of problems, such as charts and graphs, and may incorporate textual passages from science and the social sciences.

Example 5

Analysis in Science and Social Studies

Students will need to employ their skill sets from reading, writing, language, and math courses to solve problems related to science and social studies. Information is presented in a variety of formats, including graphs, charts, and text, and students may be asked to resolve inconsistencies between information presented in different formats.

Example 6

Founding Documents and Great Global Conversations

The new SAT engages students with primary documents in the social sciences. Questions feature excerpts from founding documents, such as the Federalist Papers, or text from ongoing global conversations about freedom, justice, and human dignity.

Example 7

No Penalty for Wrong Answers

With no penalty for wrong answers, the SAT shifts from a test of strategy to a test of knowledge. The test formerly deducted ¼ point for each question that was answered incorrectly, which let some students “game” the test by refraining from answering difficult test questions. In 2016, however, each correct answer is worth exactly the same amount of points, and unanswered questions are worth the same as incorrect responses. Now, students will simply have to answer as many questions correctly as they can in order to get a higher score.

Redesigned Test Structure and Scores

test structure

In addition to the key shifts outlined above, the Redesigned SAT has structural changes. It’s divided into three sections: Evidence Based Reading and Writing, Math, and an optional essay. The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math sections are collectively three hours long—forty-five minutes shorter than the SAT of years past. The optional essay section is fifty minutes in length and is administered at the end of the exam period, rather than at the beginning.

College Board broke the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math sections down into several subsections that assess students’ proficiency with various skills and content. As a result, the Redesigned SAT features a completely overhauled scoring scheme that evaluates each section, skill, and content area separately.

When students receive their score reports,  they will see a composite score out of 1600 points (previously 2400 points) along with a much more detailed breakdown of their performance at a more granular level. The color coded visual below provides a breakdown of the test’s sections and subtests, and their respective scoring scales.

As the image above shows, students will receive an overall score for the Math section on a 200-800-point scale, as well as additional scores for each content area assessed within the Math section (Heart of Algebra, Passport to Advanced Math, etc.) on varying scales. The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section and its associated subscores are similarly scored. Students will receive an overall section score on a 200-800-point scale and subscores on varying scales. The Analysis in Science and Analysis in History/ Social Studies subsections are assessed through content in the Math and Evidence-Based Reading and Writing sections and scored on a 10-40-point scale. Click on the image for more information about College Board’s updated score reports.

Although each individual question only counts once, it may wear several hats. For example, a question appearing in the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section might assess students’ abilities to analyze scientific material and understand words in context; a question in the Math section may assess students’ abilities to apply algebraic reasoning in order to solve a problem in the social sciences. By measuring students’ achievement in multiple subjects, the test gives them important information about their areas of strength and weakness, enabling them to engage in purposeful practice in order to improve.

With this in mind, the College Board forged a partnership with Khan Academy (an online learning platform) to provide students with free, high quality practice resources. Through this partnership, students can link their College Board accounts with Khan Academy and gain access to specially curated practice programs based on exam scores. After they take an SAT or a practice SAT, they will be shown which skills need further honing, and then they can practice those skills on Khan Academy.

Listed below are resources for students, teachers, and parents to learn more about the system and available supports.


Example 9 (Box 1) Example 10 (Box 2)
Example 11 (Box 3) Example 12 (Box 4)