What Will Math Look Like on the New SAT?

The SATs are changing and that means the math sections are changing too. We examine what the change actually means and whether that's good—or bad—news for you.

In my 19 years as a tutor, I have worked with hundreds of students taking the SAT.

So when the College Board announced in March that it was making sweeping changes to its storied test, I wondered just how much it would actually change and what that would mean for my students.

The public response has ranged from fawning to derisive, so I was excited to sit down with some of New York City’s most experienced SAT experts last month for a sneak peak at the new test.

Not much of what we encountered took us by surprise. Some of the changes to the math sections, however, are significant. Math will include a no-calculator section (20 questions, 25 minutes) and a calculator section (37 questions, 55 minutes). One of the questions in the calculator section will be an Extended Thinking question, a multi-part question that carries four times the weight of any other math question. Here are a few oddities in the new SAT math test:

No-Calculator Vs. Calculator Sections

This is a substantial change. In principle, the inclusion of a no-Calculator section will allow the SAT to test a different kind of math knowledge, and it will be interesting to see what kinds of questions and concepts are included as this section is developed more fully. However, I’m concerned with the nomenclature of the two math sections. The so-called "calculator section" is specifically designed to include questions whose solutions are more difficult—or even impossible—to find with a calculator. It strikes me as problematic, especially for less sophisticated test-takers, that the section called the calculator section includes many questions that are actually, by explicit design, impossible to solve with a calculator.

Students may waste valuable time under the assumption that they are expected to use a calculator on questions that are actually best suited to be solved without one.

De-Emphasis of Geometry

The new SAT embraces three broad content areas for Math:

  1. The Heart of Algebra (mostly concerned with creating and solving equations, systems of equations, inequalities, and functions)
  2. Problem Solving and Data Analysis (a broad category dealing with ratios, rates, proportions, percentages, probability, graphs and charts, statistics, and modeling quadratics and exponential equations),
  3. The Passport to Advanced Math (largely dealing with more complex quadratic, exponential, and other non-linear equations and functions).

Notably lacking from these three categories is most plane and solid geometry, which will clearly be de-emphasized compared to its current role in the SAT.

This is an odd decision for a test that claims to be aligning more closely with school standards. Nearly all high school students spend a full year studying geometry. Of the 26 released SAT questions, only one deals with plane geometry and one with solid (three-dimensional) geometry. Both these questions fall under the fourth, catch-all category of "Additional Topics in Math," which will only comprise six of the 57 math questions.

Confusing Test Prep

The College Board has long insisted that test prep has no significant impact on SAT scores. Nonetheless, it has sold practice tests and its own online test preparation course, and recently announced a partnership with Khan Academy to help prepare students for the new test.

I sincerely hope that the explanations provided with the sample questions do not reflect College Board’s notions of how to explain math problems to students. The explanations focus entirely on how to teach the math, with no recognition of how to best approach the question in the context of a standardized test. I noted one sample math that would be a simple question using one of the foundational test prep techniques: plugging in or substitution. But the explanation supplied by College Board takes a question that is simple and straightforward with a proper test prep approach and turns it into a complex algebraic explanation that only high achieving math students would be able to follow.

I worry that the “test prep” offered by College Board will actually fail to teach students the numerous excellent approaches, developed over decades by experts in test preparation, and will instead favor complicated and technical explanations.

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