In the new SAT, analyzing a scatterplot chart on Florida manatees and citing evidence to back up answers will trump knowledge of arcane vocabulary.
Draft questions released by the College Board, owner of the entrance exam, illustrate the scope of the test's first redesign since 2005. The new model, which will be implemented in 2016, aims to show students' mastery of concepts taught in high school rather than measure skills and words they might rarely or never use in real life.
The SAT, which has been losing market share to competitor ACT Inc., is repositioning itself as an achievement test, using "real-world applications" of math, reading and science to identify students ready for college. In its initial unveiling of the overhaul last month, the College Board said the mandatory essay portion, added in 2005, will become optional, students will no longer be penalized for wrong answers due to guessing, and scoring will return to a scale of 1,600 from the current 2,400.
"This will be the first admission exam that requires students to cite evidence in support of their understanding of texts in both reading and writing," College Board President David Coleman and Chief of Assessment Cynthia Schmeiser wrote in a letter accompanying the examples.
Every question will go through "extensive reviews and pretesting" to assure clarity and fairness, they said. Coleman acknowledged last month that students and their families are skeptical that the SAT and ACT reflect their best work and scope of learning.
Under the reading portion of the new test, students will be asked to analyze "relevant" words in context. One criticism of the current and previous tests has been the use of esoteric vocabulary that a typical 17-year-old test-taker wouldn't use and acquired only through rote memorization. Sample questions from practice tests on the New York-based College Board's website lists word choices including "sagacious," "trenchant" and "raconteur."
An example in the new test would have students reading the following passage: "The coming decades will likely see more intense clustering of jobs, innovation, and productivity in a smaller number of bigger cities and city-regions. Some regions could end up bloated beyond the capacity of their infrastructure, while others struggle, their promise stymied by inadequate human or other resources."
They would then need to choose what the word "intense" most closely means: A) emotional, B) concentrated, C) brilliant, or D) determined. The only correct answer is B.
That sample question doesn't appear much different from one on the current test, said Chris Falcinelli, founder of Focus Tutors & Test Prep, Brooklyn, New York. "Less esoteric and more relevant" means lower level and easier words, he said.
"Is it really bad that a kid might need to know the words 'sanguine' or 'redoubtable' in order to get an 800 on the Reading SAT?" Falcinelli said. "The vast majority of problems on the test don't turn on the difficulty of the vocab. They turn on how well the tester has read them."
The math section will measure problem-solving and data analysis, including use of ratios, percentages and proportional reasoning.
Last year, ACT made gains over the SAT. The ACT has an optional essay and doesn't penalize for guessing.