By Andrew Peterson, Director of Education, Method Test Prep

As the number of college applicants grows each year, the importance of standardized test performance for college admission follows suit. This harsh reality has been further magnified this academic year with the College Board’s redesign of the SAT. Students still face the decades-old decision of whether to take the SAT or ACT, but that decision now requires additional consideration given the changing landscape of the SAT.

Structural Changes

To say that the test has changed on a structural level is an understatement. The entire format and presentation has been completely overhauled. To get a better idea of how this new test will affect high school students with learning disabilities in the years to come, consider the following changes and implications for students.

Elimination of the guessing penalty. Put simply, the old test actively took additional points away from students when they gave an incorrect answer. As a result, it was not always a good idea to answer every question on the old test because leaving a question blank could produce a better score for a given student. With this scoring element now defunct, students must try to answer every question on the new test. The elimination of the guessing penalty should be welcome to students with learning disabilities because they will not have to assess whether they should answer given questions but instead be encouraged to attempt every question that is put in front of them.

Elimination of the fifth answer choice. A long standing difference between most sections on the ACT and all sections of the SAT, the fifth answer choice has been removed from the SAT. The test now has four answer choices per question on all sections of the test, with the noted exception of the short answer or “grid-in” portion of the math sections.

Consolidation of content. Possibly the biggest advantage of the new test is that students will not have to alternate subject matter over short periods of time. The College Board has grouped all content-specific material, a methodology that the ACT has been using for years. Previously, the SAT contained three math sections, three critical reading sections, three writing sections (including the essay), and an experimental section. The new SAT contains single sections of reading, writing and language, no calculator math, calculator math, and the essay. Further, those sections will always appear in the order listed above instead of a random order as before. This change is especially advantageous to students with learning disabilities because it allows them to focus intently over an extended period of time, knowing that they have to give that subject matter their attention only once during the test.

Timing. The redesigned SAT will offer a slight timing advantage, a reality that many detail-oriented and methodically inclined students will greatly appreciate. Compared to both its older version as well as the ACT, the new SAT offers students more time to work through problems. This clearly allows for students to engage in deeper analytical thought, which is a necessity for the SAT.

The total duration of the test, however, is longer than the old test and the ACT. For all students, regardless of learning disability, the sheer length of this exam will weigh heavily, producing a weaker result toward the end of the test as endurance becomes a greater issue. This test duration is only magnified further for those students who will receive extra time to take the test.

Content Changes

Writing and Language. Of the changes in the three core-content areas, the changes to the writing and language section appear to be the least extreme. The vast majority of the grammatical concepts have been carried over into the new format, but the new test exclusively uses passage-based grammar questions. Those questions not only require students to maintain the same knowledge of agreement and mechanics but also force them to tackle concepts such as relevance and redundancy with much higher frequency. Similar to the ACT, the test will also occasionally incorporate graphical elements (e.g., figures, tables, and charts) in the writing and language section.

Reading. The reading section is a shell of its former self after being stripped of its upper-tier vocabulary questions and short passages. The new reading passages are more standardized, containing either 10 or 11 questions across the board. The reading test maintains its higher incidence of inference-based questions compared to the ACT and puts a higher premium on such questions by asking students to prove those inferences by citing lines from the passage, a task that the ACT does not currently include. The continuation of inference-based questions as well as the full-passage basis for questions in the writing and language section will pose a challenge to students with learning disabilities because of the nuances of individualized reading passages and the subject-specific relevance.

The lack of higher-tier vocabulary questions is mostly beneficial to students with processing delays or memorization issues. Student can comfortably put away the flash cards and focus on meaning in a broader context. Although the vocabulary component may still be a challenge to students with learning disabilities, students will have several markers in a passage to answer a given question rather than be graded on knowing a single term.

Math. The math section redesign has both structural and content-based changes. The most staggering change, especially in the eyes of students, is the no calculator section. The new SAT ramps up its math component by including many higher level mathematical concepts that it previously excluded. Students will encounter problems stemming from trigonometry and algebra II, while they juggle an increased emphasis on algebra and mathematical interpretation across the board.

Unlike the ACT, the SAT gives mathematical formulas at the beginning of each math section and the College Board has included additional formulas, mostly volume formulas for complex geometric shapes, in the new test. This again will limit the amount of memorization any given student will have to do before the test, which will allow all students, including those with learning disabilities, to focus intently on the process of the test as a whole rather than on smaller, seemingly separate and unrelated elements.

Although the math formulas are provided, the reality is that they are rarely helpful. Compared to the old version of the SAT, the new version sparingly includes questions that require the given formulas. This not only degrades the value of the formulas but also means that students will need to have a much deeper understanding of what the math in any given question means. This presents a big issue for students dealing with learning disabilities as it requires them to step outside of their trusted formulaic approach to mathematics.

The math challenges are compounded by the no calculator section as well. Not only will students have to compute without their calculators for a significant portion of the math component, but the section that allows the use of a calculator is written in a way that essentially mitigates the effectiveness of the calculator.

A Choice

In conclusion, as the quest for success in standardized testing continues, it is very important to consider the relative benefits of the ACT. It is a substantially more straightforward and formulaic test and, therefore, confers a direct benefit to those with learning disabilities. The only real challenge of the ACT for students with learning disabilities is the timing. However, if a student with a learning disability can receive extra time on both the SAT and the ACT, the ACT will almost definitely be the better test to take.

Andrew Peterson can be reached at [email protected]