What the New SAT Means for Middle School Students

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In March, the College Board announced massive changes to the SAT, a test that millions of college-bound students take each year. Most current high school students will still take the current version of the SAT, with 9th graders having the option of taking either test depending on when they time their testing dates. But today’s middle school students will face an entirely new beast when it comes to college admissions testing.

In many ways, the current SAT is easier to prepare for than the revised version will be. Current SAT preparation involves more rote memorization — of mathematic  formulae, high-level vocabulary words, and grammar rules. The revised SAT will require a broader and stronger foundation of important math, reading, and writing skills, placing far less emphasis on memorization of facts and rules. As a result, students who will be taking the new SAT will need to focus their energies on developing these fundamental skills early on.

What does this mean for middle school students?

Middle school students have the advantage of being aware of the test changes years in advance. This allows middle school students to begin working on developing strong foundational skills now in order to be fully prepared for the new SAT when it debuts in 2016.

Math Skills

The revised SAT math section focuses on three areas: Problem Solving and Data Analysis, the Heart of Algebra, and Passport to Advanced Math. Middle school students shouldn’t worry about advanced math yet, but they should focus on the other two areas.

Problem Solving and Data Analysis focuses on solving problems in science, social science, and career contexts. Students must be familiar with using ratios, percentages, and proportional reasoning to solve problems. Heart of Algebra focuses on students’ mastery of linear equations and systems. These are all math skills that are introduced and developed during the middle school years.

Parents should pay close attention to their children’s performance in math classes in coming school years. Any signs of slipping grades or test scores may indicate that the student is struggling with key fundamental math skills. Because math classes build on prior knowledge from week to week, failure to master a particular skill may result in difficulties when developing higher level math skills later on. It’s important to catch any potential weak spots early so that they can be addressed before holes in a student’s math knowledge begin to accumulate.

Reading Skills

First, the good news: No more esoteric vocabulary. The redesigned SAT will represent a departure from past iterations of the test in terms of how it tests vocabulary skills. Instead of using analogies (as the old, old SAT did) or sentence completions (as the current SAT does), the redesigned SAT will ask students to interpret the meanings of words based on the context of the passage in which they appear. There will be an emphasis on words with multiple meanings, which will require that students use context to determine which potential meaning is the correct one.

Now, the bad news: The redesigned reading section will focus less on reading comprehension than on analysis, synthesis, and evaluation of a passage. It will no longer be enough for students to be able to read and understand a given passage; they must also be able to evaluate how the author uses evidence and rhetoric to communicate with the reader.

The best way to understand this shift is through Bloom’s Taxonomy:


This chart can be used to evaluate the level of thinking required for various types of questions commonly found in classrooms. The old SAT reading section tends to emphasize some of the lower level skills — recalling and understanding information, for example. The redesigned SAT reading section will emphasize the higher order skills, requiring that students be able to use information in the passage to draw new conclusions, add information in order to support existing conclusions, draw inferences from the information given, or analyze the ways in which the author has organized the ideas within the passage.

Students must spend time developing critical reading skills that will allow them to better evaluate the materials they read. The first step to developing these critical reading skills is, of course, to read. Beginning as early as possible, students should make reading an integral part of their daily activities. It is important that reading materials be reasonably challenging, and students should make an effort to incorporate some non-fiction into their reading routines.

Reading, in and of itself, is an excellent step towards developing these crucial skills. Studies have shown that students who read frequently naturally develop stronger literary analysis skills than those who don’t. To take reading a step further, students should engage in discussions or critical thinking exercises after reading, taking time to evaluate the work as a whole, the author’s use of language, and the development of ideas.

Writing Skills

First, the good news: The essay section will be optional. The current SAT includes a 25-minute essay section, and the essay is required. The redesigned SAT will include an optional 50-minute essay section. Don’t get too excited, yet. Although much of the coverage of the SAT redesign has seemed to celebrate the end of the SAT essay, it’s worth noting that the “optional” essay will likely be required by many colleges, particularly those that are more selective. After all, the ACT has long had an “optional” essay section, but many colleges, including all UC schools, the Ivies, and others, require the essay. We’ve always advised students to go ahead and take the optional essay section because it’s better to have the score and not need it than to need the score and not have it.

So, yes, the essay will be “optional” — but you should go ahead and plan on taking it.

The newly optional status isn’t the only change to the SAT essay. The redesigned essay section will also require students to read and analyze a passage, a significant shift from the current essay structure. The current test simply asks students to develop a position on a given topic utilizing evidence from their experiences, observations, reading, or studies. The redesigned test will require students to analyze how the author of a given passage builds an argument to persuade an audience. Thus students will not only be required to write well, but will also need to be able to read closely and evaluate the ways in which writers develop arguments.

The rest of the writing section will also see changes. Rather than simply identifying grammar, mechanics, and usage errors in a given sentence or paragraph, students will essentially revise and analyze an entire passage. Errors will be evaluated and corrected within the context of a passage. Students will be required to identify unnecessary information to improve the focus of a passage, correct wordy or redundant parts of the passage, or reorganize ideas within the passage. In other words, the redesigned SAT writing section will more closely mirror the process of revising a piece of writing, both for grammatical and stylistic correctness and for the means by which information is conveyed.

To develop the skills necessary to succeed on this section of the new SAT, middle school students should focus first on developing strong writing skills. Part of this comes from reading frequently. Students who routinely read challenging and well-written material will naturally develop stronger written communication skills by learning from example. Practicing writing will also be important, both in and out of the classroom. Middle school students should begin to engage in writing exercises outside of school in order to develop important written communication skills. Consider starting a journal, utilizing daily writing prompts, or starting a blog.

Should I be worried about the new test?

In many ways, the redesigned SAT is harder than the current version of the SAT. That said, the new SAT is also more closely aligned to the work students do in class, meaning that students who perform well in rigorous classes will likely develop the skills necessary to succeed on the redesigned SAT. Because of the correlation between the new SAT and the Common Core State Standards, it will be doubly important to monitor grades in math and English courses in order to identify any potential gaps in knowledge quickly. By identifying academic weaknesses as early as possible, parents can ensure that their children get the support they need to close gaps in knowledge before those gaps accumulate.