College & Workforce Readiness

College Board Details New SAT Redesign With Release of Test Specs

By Caralee J. Adams — April 16, 2014 8 min read
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After outlining the big-picture redesign of the SAT last month, the College Board filled in the details Wednesday with sample questions and information about the new scoring system.

The New York City-based nonprofit organization that administers the 88-year-old college-entrance exam unveiled a preview of the test specifications—noting, however, that the materials are subject to change before the new SAT is introduced in spring 2016.

“These draft test specifications and sample items are just that—drafts. As such, they will systematically evolve over time,” and actual items used on the exam will go through extensive reviews and pretesting, according to a letter posted on the College Board website from President David Coleman and Cynthia Schmeiser, chief of assessment.

One of the first things students will notice on the new test is that there are four answers to choose from, rather than five. College Board research found the fifth-answer choice added little to the measurement value of questions and, in some cases, actually detracted from the quality of the question content.

It is estimated the new test will take three hours, with a 50-minute optional essay section. The current SAT is a three-hour, 45-minute exam including a 25-minute required essay. Just who chooses to take the essay will depend on the policies set by individual colleges to require it.

In a move to make the test more straightforward and remove “extraneous test-taking strategies,” scores will also only be based on the number of questions test-takers answer correctly without fear of being penalized for making their best guess, according to the College Board materials.

The organization outlined plans for two additional cross-test scores for how students do analyzing history/social studies text and science text, but Schmeiser said the additions are tentative, pending the results of research. Each of the scores would be reported on a scale ranging from 10 to 40.

“Those scores are intended to provide deeper insights about student readiness than ever before ... to convey how well students can apply the essential college-readiness skills across the disciplines,” according to Schmeiser.

The composite scores will include two main area scores: 1) evidence-based reading and writing, which will be the sum of the reading-test score and the writing- and language-test score; and 2) math. Each of the two area scores will be reported on a scale ranging from 200 to 800. The scores for the essay will be reported separately. A perfect SAT score will return to 1600.


The redesigned SAT will also report seven subscores. In the reading and writing and language tests, students will receive subscores for: 1) command of evidence, and 2) relevant words in context. The writing and language test will also report two additional subscores for: 1) expression of ideas; and 2) standard English conventions. The math test will report three subscores: 1) Heart of Algebra, 2) problem-solving and data; and 3) passport to advanced math.

“This will be tremendously helpful to start to move the SAT from being a status measure to being learning actionable information,” said David Conley, chief executive officer for the Educational Policy Improvement Center (EPIC) at the University of Oregon. It can help students know what they need to change or do differently, rather than just a snapshot of where they stand in relationship to everyone else, he said.

“The subscores, if used properly, can be extremely useful as educational tools for teachers and students,” to guide course-taking decisions, said Gregg Fleisher, chief academic officer for the National Math and Science Initiative in Dallas. “The hope is that it will also provide better predictive information in terms of college success. Providing more information certainly is not going to hurt.”

Others say the subscores will be too late to be used as a diagnostic tool. Mark Schneider, a vice president and fellow at the American Institutes for Research, said low subscores will be more likely to propel a student to take the SAT again than to take a more rigorous course in high school.

Describing College Board officials as “horrified” that only 43 percent of test-takers meet the minimum benchmark to be considered college ready, the College Board’s Schmeiser said in a press call Monday that more needs to be done to help prepare students for college and career. While not a complete solution, she said the new achievement test is more “clear and open” and intended to more narrowly focus on what is important for students to know in college and better reflect what they are learning in challenging high school coursework.

The redesigned SAT will require students to cite evidence in support of their understanding of texts in both reading and writing. Students will have to analyze and synthesize words and numbers, using informational graphics.

They will also have to move beyond academic problems to apply knowledge to real-world applications of reading and math. The math section will focus on fewer topics that are critical to college and career success.

David Bressoud, a former president of the Mathematical Association of America who served on the College Board Mathematics Sciences Academic Advisory Committee that reviewed the SAT questions, said the new approach is to have students apply their math knowledge, not just do equations. For example, in one question, students are given a situation and then asked which of the following equations should be used to solve it. “It’s not just doing a standard math problem. It’s understanding how math is used,” said Bressoud.

There was debate within the committee about focusing on just three areas within math for the new SAT. “We finally came to the conclusion that it’s better to identify a few critical areas that we know students will absolutely need for college-level work and then to concentrate on those,” said Bressoud. “The whole idea behind this is to have an assessment that really gets at the math students’ need to be college ready ... changing the focus away from general mathematical aptitude.”


Rather than having students try to memorize lists of “SAT words” that are obscure, the new test measures vocabulary knowledge by asking about use of a certain word in the context of a science or social science passage.

The reading test drills down, more specifically, asking students to answer questions based on what is stated and implied in texts across a range of content areas and determine which portion of a text best supports the answer to a given question.

In the writing and language section, test-takers are asked to develop, support, and refine claims in multiparagraph passages—some with accompanying graphics—and to add, revise, or delete information.

Conley said the understanding that students need to show in reading and the expectations to go deeper will have implications for curriculum. “I think there will be a lot of implications for instruction in high school. It’s an encouragement for teachers to go deeper and give students time to think,” he said. "[The new SAT] will be a more valid reflection of the kinds of things students are expected to know in college.”

The essay is no longer open-ended for students to fill in information without support. The redesigned SAT asks students to analyze a passage and explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience through the use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive devices.

The new SAT “hits all the current fads and buzz words: critical thinking, higher-order thinking, 21st-century skills, real-life, authentic,” just as the Common Core State Standards, and other achievement measures are doing, said the AIR’s Schneider.

It is clear that the College Board wants to drive curriculum and feed Advanced Placement and other products into the curriculum reform, said Schneider. He said the redesign is fueled, in part, by the College Board’s concern about a growing number of schools making college-entrance exams optional, the expansion of the ACT, and the assessments of students once in college, such as the College Learning Assessment.

“Clearly, there is a business decision going on here,” said Schneider. “A lot of the [College Board’s] key products are suffering from market stress. ... This is a serious commitment, but you have to figure the business angle to this too. Your premier product, the SAT, is losing market share.”

Jim Rawlins, director of admissions at the University of Oregon in Eugene, anticipates most colleges will continue to focus on the composite score and be skeptical about reading too much into the subscores and cross-scores at first.

A subscore would be just a few questions in the big scheme of the test, said Rawlins, a former president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling, said he’d want more evidence before using subscores in a profound way —and that takes time.

With just four answers to decide between and right-only scoring, will there be less text anxiety?

“It might make a difference for some students, but whatever the changes are on the test, it will still have a sorting function,” said Rawlins. “If you take away all anxiety and got rid of the things people struggle with, what would that really lead to? Everyone would do well on the test and then the test loses its major purpose.”

The SAT is a high-stakes test and students will still likely be stressed having to prepare for it. Yet, the results are only one factor in the admissions process and many schools, such as Oregon, give greater weight to grades than college-entrance exams.

“It has never been the main way that colleges determine our admissions decisions. It is a supporting piece of information,” he said. “At the end of day, nothing seems to be changing much in their predictive value. ....If they don’t change drastically what the test does for us, it’s not a big deal.”

Adds Schneider: “Ultimately, the question is whether this will really predict college readiness and success. We won’t know that for years.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the College Bound blog.