SAT essay

Changes to the New ACT and SAT Essays

Both the ACT and SAT essays will be changing within the next 14 months. The ACT will implement its new essay format with the September 12th, 2015 test date, and the SAT will likely premier its new optional essay on its January 24th, 2016 test.

One of the key reasons behind the overhauls is that in their current states, both essays can be written to formula.

The ACT prompt, for instance, usually deals with some act or fiat imposed on schools: random locker checks, video cameras in the playground, school uniforms…and the essay writer needs to either agree or disagree with the proposal and then offer up two supporting examples. One girl who received a 12 ( on both the SAT and ACT a perfect score) on her ACT essay mentioned she always disagrees with whatever is being imposed upon the schools, states the opposing argument, destroys it, offers up two solid examples that support her thesis, and then concludes, ending with a ‘zinger,’ disengaging with a profound statement.   

The new ACT essay will focus on controversial issues such as global warming, GMOs, or the role of art in society. The response needs to include a logical argument with cogent examples, but now there will be three short quotes expressing a spectrum of views. The test taker will need to evaluate the quality of the responses and build those evaluations into the essay.  The ACT still has not announced whether it will add more time to the current 30-minute limit.

Possibly, the announced ACT essay changes are an effort to preempt the proposed 2016 changes to the SAT essay. The SAT essay (as is the entire test) is undergoing profound changes. 

Currently the SAT essay prompts deal with concepts: “Should freedom be sacrificed for safety?” or such profound questions as, “Is there a good war or a bad peace?” Smart, well-trained students will respond with an essay that shows  mastery over style, syntax, structure, and logic, is legible, has four paragraphs with two cogent examples spread over two pages (since many studies indicate that SAT essay scorers favor length). The problem has been that students may use examples that are completely fabricated. As David Coleman, the president of the College Board guilelessly remarked, the writing section ‘does not grade you on the correctness of what you write.”

To avoid such travesties writing rampant on the New SAT, its essay requires ‘cogent and clear written analysis’ using evidence from a ‘challenging source text.’ The essay prompt will not vary much from test to test; rather, it will be the passage that determines the essay’s challenge. One of the sample essays I reviewed was adapted from Paul Bogard’s Let There be Dark and the prompt asked, ‘…explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved.’ Careful reading and analysis are integral to the new essay writing process.

Instead of 25 minutes, the new SAT essay will allot 50. The passages will consistently be 650-750 words; the scoring system is still under review, through one provisional scheme would divide the 12 points among critical reading, analysis, and writing.  

Regardless of how you might dress up the new SAT essay contention abounds. One such critic, James Murphy, a tutor for the Princeton Review, contends (“Don’t Overhaul the SAT Essay, Dump It”, 18 October 2014 Wall Street Journal) that the new SAT essay is too long, making the essay writing more an endurance test; that he already has a plan to address the 50-minute essay with 6 paragraphs, chunking analysis into increasingly smaller components; and, that the new SAT essay ‘does not contribute to the overall predictive nature of the exam. He adds that in a recent survey of admissions officers, 67% said that the writing section had little to do with the final admissions decision.

Regardless of how efficacious either essay is in determining an applicant’s capabilities, the ACT and SAT essay changes are attempting to better incorporate reading, analysis and writing. How EB White or HL Menken might have done on either of these new incarnations is open to speculation.   

The Redesigned SAT

At last the new redesigned SAT was formerly announced on 5 March 2014 ending months of speculation about its content.

The new test content will be first administered in the fall 2015 PSAT, with the SAT launch in ‘spring 2016.’  

The New SAT will eliminate the quarter point guessing penalty, obviate ‘obscure vocabulary’ from its reading sections—stressing discovery of meaning through context, and require students to support their answers to reading questions from evidence supplied in the passage.

On the mathematics front, the New SAT will focus on problem solving and data analysis (ratios, percentages, and proportions), linear equations and systems, and something that sounds a bit daunting, “Passport to Advanced Math” which deals with ‘manipulation of complex equations’. In essence the New SAT will be narrowing its math focus to the three aforementioned areas (though it reserves the right to add or change areas as needed to ensure its math questions are applicable to a wide range of majors and careers).         

The problems a student will encounter in the New SAT are based on ‘real-world contexts’.  For this it will offer ‘evidence-based reading and writing sections’ with questions that  cover literature and ‘literary non-fiction’  including charts, graphs and prose, similar to what can be found in science, social science majors and careers. These are the same type of questions addressed in the ACT Science section, and in its social science and natural science reading passages.

Moreover, the redesigned SAT will also have questions that will make students apply their suite of skills to ‘science, history, and social studies’.

Any seasoned high school counselor who hears this description without the words, “ redesigned New SAT” would leap to the conclusion that it describes the ACT, but, admittedly, there are some unique additions that make the New SAT a shade or two different.         

Specifically, the New SAT will now offer, for lack of a better description, a ‘Great Books’ section that  features a selection from America’s founding documents, such as the Federalist Papers, the US Constitution, or a text from the ‘Great Global conversation’ about freedom, justice, and human dignity.         

Furthermore, the writing section (with its improving, correcting, and editing sentences) will be optional. This is surprising as the addition of the SAT Writing subject test was the major redesign feature added to the 2005 SAT facelift (at the insistence of the University of California which if denied would have eliminated the SAT admissions requirement). Many institutions, however, don’t even consider the writing score in their admissions calculations.

The redesigned SAT will be three hours long, with an additional 50 minutes allocated to the essay. It will also return to its pre-2005 1600 point scale (the essay score will be reported separately), and will have both a print and online version.

Lastly, the redesigned SAT will attempt to curtail the need for expensive test prep services by allying with Khan Academy ( which will offer 200 videos, free, covering the main topics of the test.

When Donald Coleman made the announcement of the changes to the test, he opined, “It is time to admit that the SAT and ACT have become disconnected from the work of our high schools… [students] are skeptical that either the SAT or the ACT allows them to show their best work…”  A more accurate description would have been that the ACT, which is already well situated to assess the curriculum-based skills that are at the foundation of Donald Coleman’s Common Core State Standards, is now being joined by the redesigned SAT. We know curriculum-based testing has worked well for the ACT, as it’s now the dominant standardized test in America.  The SAT covets a place at the ACT table. How the test taker and the college admissions offices benefit from having two curriculum-based tests is anyone’s guess.