Update on the new SAT: Evidence-Based Reading

In this post, Part II of our series on the Redesigned SAT, we examine the changes in store for the Critical Reading section of the SAT in 2016. For a broad picture of general changes to the test, see Part I here.

I took the SAT on October 11th at Cleveland High School. Yes, you read that correctly: I, an adult with not only a college degree but a master’s to boot, sat in a classroom with 24 high-schoolers and took a 3.5-hour test designed to award college admission.

(In case you’re interested, here are my scores:)

Scott's Oct 11 SAT Scores

But back to the issue at hand. Why did I take the SAT??

Partly because, as an SAT and ACT tutor, I need to stay fresh. But mainly because I wanted to see the unscored section, wherein the College Board currently tests versions of the Redesigned SAT. This unscored section, in addition to the 200-page test specification document released on CollegeBoard.org, is the only way to gain a sustained look at how the test is changing in 2016.

Sure enough, I was rewarded. My 4th SAT section was an experimental Evidence-Based Reading section, which College Board has designed to replace the current Critical Reading SAT section, a medley of vocab-based Sentence Completion and Passage-Based Reading questions. Here’s what College Board says regarding the new Evidence-Based Reading component of the Redesigned SAT:

One notable feature of the test is its use of
texts representing a range of complexities to better determine whether
students are ready for the reading challenge posed by college courses and
workforce training programs. On each assessment, one passage will be
drawn from a U.S. founding document (a text such as the Declaration of
Independence, the Constitution, or the Bill of Rights) or a text that is part
of the Great Global Conversation (a text such as one by Lincoln or King,
or by an author from outside the United States writing on a topic such as
freedom, justice, or liberty).

Thus, my first impressions of the Evidence-Based Reading SAT questions revolved around the migration away from texts typical to humanities coursework and towards texts typical to coursework in the hard and soft sciences. My prompt in the Oct. 11th SAT concerned new research methods’ the dating of geologic evidence for the Permian-Triassic extinction hypothesis. The passage explained how new research methods improved upon older evidence, and included an informational graphic displaying the decay of isotopes related to the mass extinction. I encountered questions requiring me to identify specific pieces of information, back up a claim with evidence from the passage, and interpret the graph–based on the argument made in the passage.

The older SAT Reading section emphasized a literary analysis of humanities texts. The Redesigned SAT asks student to “think like a scientist.”

This probably represents the biggest shift in the SAT’s Reading section: instead of navigate through passages with arcane terminology, highly rhetorical flourishes, and a variety of opinions, students are now being asked to read texts in a STEM-oriented fashion: scanning for information, weighing evidence, and charting an argument’s progress over the course of multiple paragraphs.

In the test specification document, College Board has outlined a few new (though predictable) question types for Evidence-Based Reading:

  • Determining implicit meanings
  • Analyzing word choice
  • Citing textual evidence
  • Analyzing point of view
  • Interpreting words and phrases in context
  • Understanding relationships
  • Analyzing part-whole relationships
  • Analyzing quantitative information
  • Analyzing reasoning

Some of the items on this list seem vary familiar: the emphasis on rhetoric, logical structure, and contextual meaning are all present in the current SAT’s Critical Reading section. Such question types (main idea, details, meaning of words, and authorial intent) should be identifiable to anyone who’s completed at least one practice test in the Official Guide to the SAT or glanced through pp. 64-68 of Getting Ready for the SAT. What’s new is not this basic orientation to reading comprehension, but the emphasis on evidence.

Students will be asked to use evidence in two ways: pinpoint part of the passage that could serve as evidence to a given conclusion (usually from a previous question), and evaluate graphical evidence to draw conclusions.

Again, the College Board:

Another feature of the test is its inclusion of
informational graphics, which students must interpret and/or relate to
passage content. Additionally, students must show a command of textual
evidence, in part by identifying the portion of a text that serves as the best
evidence for the answer to another question.

Here are a few screenshots of questions from the new SAT that demonstrate these variations. First, a sample question that asks students to identify evidence in the passage:

 Redesigned SAT EbRW Sample Question 1Redesigned SAT EbRW Sample Question 2

And then a sample question that asks students to utilize graphical info to draw inferences:

Redesigned SAT EbRW Sample Question 3Redesigned SAT EbRW Sample Question 4

With the inclusion of more science-related passages, questions, and infographics, it would seem logical to compare the Redesigned SAT’s Evidence-Based Reading section to ACT’s Science section. However, let me forestall this conclusion by drawing attention to some critical differences between the new SAT Reading section and the ACT’s Science section:

1. On ACT’s Science section, students are asked to quickly read, interpret, and make scientific deductions about a set of data, a description of an experiment or set of experiments, and conflicting viewpoints on a scientific phenomenon. These passages are designed to be progressed through in 5 minutes or less–promoting snap judgments over sustained interaction with the data.

2. In contrast, the new SAT’s Evidence-Based Reading passages are as long or longer than the current SAT Critical Reading passages, which means students are expected to spend 10-15 minutes working through an argument, detailed analysis of evidence, and visual representation of data. The difference between 5 minutes and 10-15 minutes may seem minor, out of context. However, in the course of a standardized test, this difference is monumental: it signals an emphasis on synthesis of scientific principles and data rather than pure analysis.

3. There is a clear prioritization of visual data in ACT’s Science section: six out of seven ACT Science passages have charts, tables, and diagrams requiring test-takers to infer trends, deduce significance, and answer questions regarding the information they present. The new SAT’s Evidence-Based Reading passages have at most one infographic. Furthermore, ACT’s charts and graphs typically require students to understand their data mathematically–that is, whether they display direct or inverse variation, or what slope the line of best fit might be for a table of data. As far as I can deduce, this mathematical approach to infographics almost never occurs on the new SAT.

So what’s the takeaway? How does this change influence how students (specifically sophomores, who will be the first class to see the Redesigned SAT) ought to be preparing for the new SAT?

The new SAT’s Reading section will not be entirely different, but it will require a fundamentally unique approach that students familiar with the ACT Science will not necessarily be equipped for. Find a tutor who understands the Redesigned SAT and uses official College Board material, esp. full-length practice tests. The SAT is not becoming any less important to the application process, and it’s worth being exceedingly well prepared for!

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