College & Workforce Readiness

Test-Takers Also to Face More Rigorous SAT Math Section

By Sean Cavanagh — February 01, 2005 4 min read

Students taking the revamped SAT this spring will face a broader test of their abilities in advanced mathematics, a level of rigor that reflects the higher standards many states are making a part of their high school graduation requirements.

The revised college-entrance exam, which debuts in March, will for the first time include questions covering Algebra 2, a subject typically taught in the junior year of high school. Quantitative comparisons, a section of relatively short-answer questions requiring less time and less computation, will be dropped from the math section entirely.

As with the addition of a writing section and changes to the SAT’s verbal section, now called Critical Reading, the revised math test is aimed at providing admissions officers with a better gauge of what test-takers learned in high school, and how prepared they are for higher education.

“There was a belief among some students that the SAT was not related to what you did in school,” said Brian O’Reilly, the executive director for SAT information services for the College Board, which sponsors the test. “We’re trying to steer away from that.”

The new math section, which will still be scored on scale of 200 to 800 points, “is more of a signal to students that if you’re going to be college-ready, you’d better be prepared for this,” he said.

While the addition of Algebra 2 will provide a different test of mathematical ability, Mr. O’Reilly believes it won’t necessarily amount to a more difficult one. The College Board evaluated the types of questions on the new SAT, he said, to make certain the difficulty level was roughly equivalent to that of the current exam.

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Students who have taken Algebra 1—a subject typically offered in 9th grade or in middle school—will already be familiar with much of the more advanced Algebra 2 material, Mr. O’Reilly said. Moreover, the ability of students to answer SAT questions correctly, he argued, is likely to depend more on those test-takers’ overall problem-solving abilities than on their mastery of specific mathematics content.

But Jennifer H. Karan of the test-preparation company Kaplan Inc. says that the math section will clearly amount to a tougher task for students.

Semester of Difference?

The new exam contains a heavier dose of more complex math, such as fractional exponents, as opposed to generally simpler concepts such as positive exponents and whole numbers, said Ms. Karan, the national director of SAT/ACT programs for New York City-based Kaplan.

“There’s no question the math will be more challenging,” she said. That difficulty level, in her estimation, amounts to roughly a “semester of difference.” The version of the SAT that is being scrapped covered math as taught in 10th grade, Ms. Karan said, while the new test will take students through the first semester or so of 11th grade.

The College Board’s inclusion of more advanced math on the new SAT mirrors the higher standards in the subject pushed by many states recently. Over the past four years, 27 states have approved mandates to require at least three years of high school mathematics, according to a 2003 report by the Council of Chief State School Officers in Washington.

In 1990, just 49 percent of U.S. high school students were taking either Algebra 2 or another third-year high school math course, while 63 percent were taking such courses as of 2002, the council’s report found. But the proportion of students taking advanced math varies greatly across the states, and researchers have long believed that the rigor of advanced math courses varies greatly among districts and schools.

“What we call ‘Algebra 2’ includes a lot of different things,” said Rolf Blank, the director of education indicators for the CCSSO. “The content is not guaranteed.”

The changes to the SAT’S math section will draw its content closer to that of its rival, the ACT, which already covers Algebra 2, other observers say. Officials of the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT estimate that over half the math section on the ACT exam already contains higher-level mathematics.

Mr. O’Reilly acknowledged that the SAT was only now adding higher-level math that the ACT has included for years. But he argued that the SAT has traditionally done a better job of evaluating students’ reasoning and problem-solving skills in mathematics—as opposed to simply their grasp of classroom material—than the ACT.

The changes to the SAT’S math section are significant enough, Ms. Karan of Kaplan believes, that some schools will evaluate their math curricula to make sure advanced algebra and other higher-level material are presented early enough so that students can master them.

Mr. O’Reilly predicts that the revised math section will encourage more students to take three years of mathematics.

Most students take the SAT for the first time during the spring of junior year, the College Board says, the same year that many of them are still studying Algebra 2.

But the College Board believes few students will be hampered by not having seen the new material. The board’s internal studies indicate that well over 90 percent of students who take the SAT complete at least three years of math while in high school, Mr. O’Reilly said.

“We’re comfortable that these changes will not disadvantage [those] students,” he said.

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A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Test-Takers Also to Face More Rigorous SAT Math Section

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