Monday, March 10, 2014

The new SAT: Math

This is the second of a series of posts about the redesigned SAT.  Yesterday's post addressed comments made about vocabulary.

About the adjustments to the math section:

When Daniel Coleman announced a year ago that the SAT would be redesigned, he listed 3 reasons:

1.     To better serve the needs of college admissions officers.
2.     To improve equity.
3.     To better align with the Common Core curriculum.

At the time, the prediction among many was three-fold:

1.     The SAT would become more like its rival the ACT.
2.     The SAT would become less of a college entrance exam and more of a high school exit exam.
3.       The new SAT would be “easier” and thus do little to distinguish between top students and above-average students.

For the math section in particular, speculation was that, like the ACT, the SAT would test topics currently included in pre-calculus.  The current SAT doesn’t test topics past Algebra II.

Since the recent announcement giving more details about the SAT that will be rolled out in March 2016, some pundits are still predicting that the new SAT will be very similar to the ACT, but I disagree.

It’s no secret that the redesign was inspired in part by the ACT’s increasing market share.  Among other things, several states have contracted to give the ACT in schools as a measure of high school achievement.  That has to be a tempting market to tap. 

One detail in the announcement seemed designed to lure back students who would have chosen the rival test.  The current SAT "penalizes guessing" by subtracting points for incorrect answers.  The ACT does not.  Students have actually chosen not to take the SAT for that reason alone, and eliminating this practice is a much-needed marketing move.  It is also a move I heartily approve.  Less time spent on this useful-only-for-the-SAT test-taking skill means more time we can spend on content and problem-solving.

HOWEVER:  In a very bold move, the College Board also announced that part of the new test will be "calculator inactive."  This will be VERY unpopular, and since calculators are allowed on the entire ACT math section many students will choose to take the ACT on this basis alone.  The College Board may have shot themselves in the foot on that one.  I, on the other hand, am pleased as punch.

In Wednesday’s announcement, they said that the math section would include fewer topics, not more.  The topics are vaguely divided into “Problem Solving and Data Analysis”, the “Heart of Algebra”, and “Passport to Advanced Math.” One presumes that each topic would then be tested in more depth.  This would be consistent with the Common Core goal of studying fewer topics in more depth and of promoting critical thinking skills.  The list of topics was very vague, but nothing in the list specifically pointed to the inclusion of pre-calculus topics.  As for the difficulty level of the questions, it’s much too early to tell.

I am ambivalent about a reduction in the number of topics.  On the one hand, does a college student really need to be able to apply the Hinge Theorem – a topic on one of the Official Guide practice tests?  On the other hand, a student who didn’t remember the theorem could reason through the problem as long as he understood the basic principles of geometry, and isn’t the ability to do that exactly what the test purports to measure?  Won’t reducing the number of topics just put a limit on the questions that can be asked?  Or would this question continue to be asked because the student can reason through it using……wait.  Geometry isn’t in the list of math topics.  Unless it is included in “passport to advanced math” – and what IS that, anyway? – then GEOMETRY IS NOT ON THE REDESIGNED SAT. 

Well, that would solve their market share problem, right there.  On the other hand, if I’m a college math, physics or engineering department, I definitely want to know if the kid remembers geometry.  So, if they leave it off the SAT, will colleges start requiring the ACT instead?  And if this test is designed to influence high school curriculum, then will geometry no longer be taught in high school?  I guess we won’t really know what the topics are until we actually see some sample questions, so I’ll try to avoid getting my panties in a wad between now and then.  Still.  It’s something to keep an eye on.

I’ll be posting about local high school students’ experience with an implementation of the Common Core math standards in a week or so once I get the SAT stuff said, but at this point it’s relevant to remind the reader that the “architect” of Common Core and the leader of the College Board are the same person.  When the announcement first came out that the SAT would be redesigned, aligning with the Common Core standards was specifically mentioned.  But in the announcement last Wednesday, College Board spokespeople and the media were strangely quiet on that point.  Perhaps because Common Core’s approval rating is currently in the toilet?

But, I digress.  One other announcement was indirectly math-related.  Oddly, the one change that seems to have resonated most with the general public is that the SAT will go back to scoring on a 1600-point scale.  I thought this was a silly thing to focus on, but then someone pointed out that this causes your math score to represent half of your overall composite instead of one-third.  That’s true.  The individual who pointed it out was bemoaning this fact (she was an English teacher) but as a math major I am pleased.  I also think it is appropriate given the current emphasis on STEM.


So, changes to the math section:  Good or Bad?  It’s too early to tell, but I confess I’m worried.

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