Students should brace for longer, more difficult SAT

Jade Thomas, 15, a junior at George Washington Carver School of Arts and Science, goes over study material before she takes the PSAT test on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015, in Sacramento. “There were some people around who were struggling,” she said after the test. “There were tiny whispers like, ‘What does this mean?’”
Jade Thomas, 15, a junior at George Washington Carver School of Arts and Science, goes over study material before she takes the PSAT test on Wednesday, Oct. 14, 2015, in Sacramento. “There were some people around who were struggling,” she said after the test. “There were tiny whispers like, ‘What does this mean?’”

Students across the country are preparing for a new, more challenging SAT that will debut in March, the first major revision of the college admissions exam in a decade.

The College Board, which administers the SAT, decided last year that the test needed to better reflect what students are learning in class, particularly as most states have adopted Common Core State Standards.

Among the biggest changes: Obscure vocabulary is no longer a primary focus. Now students must analyze text and show that they understand how the author uses words in passages.

Math will focus on problem solving, data analysis and algebra. There will be more graphics and more word problems in the math sections than in the old test, according to Michael Boothroyd, executive director of college admission programs for Kaplan Test Prep.

Younger students came face to face with the new exam model for the first time last month, when they took the PSAT. The test, which qualifies students for National Merit Scholarships and prepares them for the SAT, was 35 minutes longer and more difficult than in previous years.

“I took the PSAT last year and it was somewhat difficult, but not so difficult that I felt like I needed to study excessively,” said Julie Lam, 16, an honors student at George Washington Carver School of Arts and Sciences near Mather. “This one caught me off guard. I didn’t expect it to be difficult. The math section is the one I struggled with the most.”

Carver high school juniors Lam and Jade Thomas said the math portion of the nearly three-hour PSAT was the most difficult. Particularly troublesome was a timed section that required students to solve problems using multiple steps and – for the first time – without a calculator.

Most of the students who took the PSAT at George Washington Carver High in mid-October didn’t know that the test had changed, said Thomas, 15. “There were some people around who were struggling,” she said. “There were tiny whispers like, ‘What does this mean?’ 

One of the key changes to the SAT is that the essay section, which has grown from 25 to 50 minutes, is optional for most students. Only 13 percent of the nation’s schools, including University of California campuses, require the essay for admission.

SAT test scores also will return to the 400 to 1,600 scale, while PSAT scores will range from 320 to 1,520. There is no longer a penalty for incorrect answers.

A survey by Kaplan Test Prep published in August showed that 85 percent of parents and college-bound students in the U.S. were unaware the SAT is changing. Some students who know about the change are considering taking the old SAT before the end of January,

At St. Francis Catholic High School in Sacramento, guidance counselors are working with each class to determine which test they should take.

“For juniors, for a practical matter, it will be up to them,” said Lisa Wilkins, director of marketing and enrollment for the school. “January will be the last old SAT they can take.”

Natomas Charter School staff have told students about the new tests and given them handouts comparing the old and new tests, said Suzanna Shenk-Tiffany, a school counselor.

Students can always take both the old and new SAT tests, keeping the best score, Shenk-Tiffany said. “Some take it four, five or six times,” she said, adding that some colleges will take the best English score from one test and the best math score from another.

Most colleges plan to accept both the old and new SAT tests for a few years.

Some advocates for low-income students in past years have criticized high-stakes college admissions tests because affluent families can afford to pay for expensive prep programs that help raise scores. In response, the College Board has partnered for the first time with Khan Academy to provide free, extensive SAT prep online.

The Khan Academy website walks students through sample questions, scores them, shows their weaknesses and helps them to improve.

“This partnership is designed to level the playing field for all kids,” said Cyndie Schmeiser, chief of assessment for the College Board.

The free online test prep could offer some relief to parents who have had to shell out hundreds, even thousands of dollars for SAT and PSAT test prep. The test prep industry offers everything from a plethora of study guides starting at $6 to as much as $1,600 for some some classes.

The new test has meant that Kaplan Test Prep and other companies that offer SAT and PSAT prep classes and individual tutors have had to revamp their classes.

Sacramento-area Kaplan tutor Robert Mitchell said the new SAT, which can go almost four hours with the essay, requires stamina and good organization.“We give four full-length practice tests,” he said. “It’s very difficult to take the SAT on the first try without any practice. Taking realistic practice tests is very helpful.”

His best tip for students: “Don’t use the old prep books. These are major changes.”

The changes to the new test include a math section with questions with multiple parts and as many as five clues in them, he said. Problems in the old test contained only two clues.

“It’s helpful to read one sentence at a time and to take notes as you go to glean important information,” Mitchell said.

The English portion has lengthier passages, he said, but includes less obscure words that are more commonly used in high school and college.

George Washington Carver Principal Allegra Alessandri recommends that her students instead take the ACT test, which also is used for college admission and has gained in popularity. She said the ACT better reflects the coursework taught at the Waldorf-inspired school. The SAT doesn’t show a student’s persistence or measure potential for future success, she said.

The changes come as the SAT – once the primary college admissions exam – lost ground to the ACT in recent years. According to the two test companies, 1.85 million high school graduates in the class of 2014 took the ACT, while 1.67 million took the SAT.

Schmeiser said that the SAT redesign was geared toward assessing the knowledge and skills students need in college. Fewer than half of the students who took the old SAT test were prepared to go to college and take entry-level courses without the need for remediation, she said.

“That is appalling,” she said. “We are committed to helping kids become ready.”

Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert

How it works

The College Board administers the SAT, PSAT, as well as the new PSAT 10 and PSAT 8/9. All assessments include a reading test, a writing and language test and a math test. The SAT has an optional essay, which some colleges require.