How the New SAT Tests Intelligence (and What it Means for Your High School Student)

March 22, 2016

I used to kick-off my first SAT session with an old problem that you may be familiar with:

A baseball and a bat together cost $1.10. The bat costs a dollar more than the baseball. How much does the baseball cost?

If you’re like the vast majority of my students and over 70 percent of the population, you answered 10 cents. Of course, that’s not the correct answer, just the intuitive one—the one that requires the least deliberation. If the baseball costs $.10, then the bat would have to cost $1.10 by itself! The correct answer for the cost of the baseball is $.05.

To me, the question embodied the philosophy of measuring intelligence that the old SAT employed. Building off concepts all high school students should be exposed to, the SAT would then pit intuition against reason and would reward students who were able to think twice about their intuitive responses. So aside from a monster concept review for the math and writing (aka grammar) sections and a race to learn the 500 most popular vocab words on the test, SAT prep centered on internalizing the ways the SAT tripped up your intuition and then making those expectations second nature. Of course, there were the strategies students could master to circumvent these “tricks” in the first place, and yes those strategies still largely apply.

For the new SAT, however, I don’t use the baseball/bat problem anymore, not because these cognitive trip-ups don’t appear on the revamped SAT but because they are de-emphasized. Yes, math problems still discuss numbers in terms of feet and then slyly ask for the answer in inches; wrong answers in the reading section play on intuitive associations that leave students stuck between two answers; and the writing section still does its best to prevent students from “hearing” the grammar/usage errors at hand.

What’s different is depth. While I’m tutoring the math section, I often find myself saying, “Think about this problem algebraically, then graphically, and then think about it algebraically again.” It’s about making connections across topics that many students learn years apart. For example, most students know that the slope of a linear equation is its rise over its run, but few are able to make the connection that the tangent of the angle at which the line intersects the x-axis also equals the slope. Sound complicated? It is for most students, meaning shedding light on these connections takes time.

And this reality is even more apparent on the revamped critical reading section. Learning a list of vocab words no longer helps much: Vocab questions now exclusively ask about a word’s meaning in context. And the questions rarely ask about arcane words; rather, they’ll ask about the intended meaning of “want” in a passage written by Jane Austen, for which one of the wrong answers is “desire” and the right answer is its antiquated meaning of “absence” or “lack.” Meanwhile, the arcane words are still there, this time largely in passages written by one of America’s Founding Fathers or women’s rights advocates.

What do these changes mean for high school students? For starters, they’ll need a higher baseline reading ability across a range of topics to be successful on the SAT. These skills take much longer to accumulate than learning a few helpful tips. In other words, improving your critical reading score through traditional classroom prep just got less realistic.

To me, all of these changes spell the downfall of classroom test prep and the rise of one-on-one tutoring and adaptive educational technologies. College Board’s partnering with Khan Academy to offer free SAT practice material online certainly speaks to this theory. What I’m interested in is taking this trajectory a step further, especially with respect to critical reading, by incorporating technologies that make critical reading skill acquisition a seamless part of the curriculum, not a stressful addition.

If you’re is a good critical reader, you probably anticipated this shameless plug. My company recently launched a critical reading improvement tool, SmartyReader.com, and we view it as the tool to re-center the English classroom on critical reading instruction. So if you’re thinking twice about paying hundreds for a test prep class, you may want to consider paying $9.99 a month for an endless supply of Smarticles ©, critical reading and grammar exercises whose difficulty adapts to your student’s evolving abilities. Or, contact your school to see if it has partnered with SmartyReader to offer free subscriptions for our SmartyReader Summer Reading Program.

Whatever you do, I’d recommend reminding your child that intelligence is a malleable thing, something that can be improved upon with the right tools and approach—just like this new SAT.

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