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Part 4: The New SAT Writing & Language and Essay Sections

 

Part 4: The New SAT Writing Because it will be significantly different from today's exam, the team at Method Test Prep has spent many hours learning about the new SAT.

Can you spot the error in the underlined portion of this sentence? This is a classic example of a statement that would be entirely acceptable in modern verbal communication (indeed, we all say and hear things like this daily), but horribly wrong in print. What's more, the error is not that the sentence begins with "because" (which, counter to what you may have learned in school, is permissible if the rest of the sentence is structured properly). In fact, the problem is known as a modifier error: the underlined portion refers to the new SAT (using "it"), but the subject identified after the comma is "the team at Method Test Prep". This is the sort of thing students will have to navigate on the new SAT "Writing and Language" test, which will in part replace the current SAT's Writing section.

Much of the speculation prior to the release of the new SAT materials centered around the College Board's competition with the ACT. Many educators and administrators predicted that, to compete with the ACT, the College Board would have to produce a test whose content closely modeled that of its competitor. While the Mathematics and Reading tests on the new exam do bear some similarities to their ACT counterparts, the new SAT's Writing and Language looks like a hybrid page constructed from both the College Board's current material and the ACT English section playbook. 

Major Change 1: Structure

The College Board added today's SAT Writing section in 2005, supposedly in response to threats from the University of California system, which considered dropping the SAT from its admissions requirements if the College Board continued administering the SAT without a writing component. Ever since, the Writing has tested students on a variety of errors in grammar, structure, and usage, and has also presented a mandatory, 25-minute essay. The multiple choice portion comprises two sections that account for 70 percent of the total Writing score; the essay makes up the remaining 30 percent. 

 

Section

      Duration        

      Questions     

Long MC

       25 min

        35

Improving sentences

 

        11

Identifying errors

 

        18

Improving paragraphs

 

         6

Short MC

       10 min

        14

Improving sentences

 

 

The multiple choice components of the current SAT Writing section (MC = Multiple Choice).


In what seems to be a common trend toward condensation, the College Board has decided to meld the two Writing multiple choice sections into one, creating a single, 35-minute, 44-question Writing and Language section on the new SAT. All multiple choice questions will be passage-based, as opposed to the one-sentence, straight-up grammar quiz format of the current exam. 

Most importantly, the much maligned essay that now serves as a rude opening to the SAT for so many students (the essay is always the first section students see) will now be a separate and optional piece. The new essay is a significant departure from the current one: on the new SAT Essay, students will have 50 minutes (twice the current 25) to respond to a prompt by analyzing evidence based in a provided source passage. 

Minor Change: Content

Why the "minor" instead of "major" here? Isn't this an overhaul? Yes and no. If you have a practice SAT on hand, find the long multiple choice Writing section (it's the only one on the test with 35 questions) and turn to numbers 30–35. Alternatively, if you have a practice ACT sitting around, open up to the English section. The format and questions you'll see are similar to those that will be featured on the Writing and Language test of the new SAT. Students will read passages taken from a number of broad literature areas (Careers, History/Social Science, Humanities, and Science) in which errors in structure, grammar, and usage are embedded. Most of the specific elements to be tested in these areas are already tested on the SAT; on the new SAT, there will simply be more questions and a greater emphasis on them. 

In The Redesigned SAT, the College Board details the "Content Dimensions" of the English language to be tested. Anyone who is familiar with the current SAT's grammar questions will realize that almost all of them–––verb tense, agreement, sentence structure, concision, organization, and rhetoric–––are present in some form on today's Writing sections.There will be a few new structure and grammar question types that will emphasize punctuation, homophones (e.g., your/you're, there/they're), and transitions, but even those elements are already tested to some extent. The most interesting new questions will focus on "Quantitative Information", in which passages will be paired with figures (e.g., graphics, charts, graphs). Students will be challenged to read the short passages and determine whether their content is consistent with what is presented in the accompanying figures. Once again, this is a push by the College Board to solidify the link between text and other media, which the organization sees as a necessary skill for college readiness.

What about the essay? Whereas students can respond to generic and abstract prompts on the current SAT (think: "Is struggle required to appreciate success?") using arguments entirely disconnected from fact (students' essay grades are not based at all on the factual accuracy of their statements and assertions), they will soon be required to use the information in front of them to construct a coherent, convincing argument in response to a consistent prompt. According to the College Board, the prompt will be "largely the same from test administration to test administration"; that is, students will always be asked to analyze evidence in the source material to demonstrate how the author of the source uses persuasion and develops his or her ideas. It's the source–––drawn from articles, books, and essays covering a wide range of topics–––that will change between exams. The College Board hopes that an evidence-based writing exercise will shed light on students' abilities to comprehend an argument, analyze it for its content, strengths, and weaknesses, and write a convincing evaluation to express their thoughts.

Summary

The multiple choice Writing and Language test of the SAT looks a bit different, but we've seen it before in shorter form. In keeping with its tests of conventional grammar and usage/mechanics, the College Board continues to recognize the value in fluency in the standards of written English. While the essay will no longer be factored into the section score, it will form its own, substantial (though optional) part of the new SAT. Whether students will opt to write the essay is a proxy for whether most colleges will require an essay score with the submission of the standard SAT scores. This will depend largely on the actual predictive validity of the essay. The flaws of the current SAT's essay are numerous and obvious; to correct them, the College Board has turned to a more applicable form of writing in which students must respond to real content, as they will have to in their future academic and career lives. Whether the essay will enhance the usefulness of the SAT or simply function as another hoop for students to jump through is a fair and compelling question. Only time and statistics will provide a verdict.