The SAT® test for college entry changes yet again in March of 2016. Changes to this test are much more significant than in the past. The Common Core has been a huge driver in the content and format of the new test. While I have generally dismissed concerns about the Common Core, the revised SAT provides evidence to the contrary, evidence that homeschoolers intending to take the SAT need to be very concerned about their own course content for years in advance of taking the exam.
At this point, I am particularly concerned about the reading section. While both the previous and new versions of the exam include reading and writing sections, the new version describes these sections as “evidence-based.” In both the reading and writing sections students are given lengthy passages to read with questions based upon those readings. Students must read very closely and carefully to answer the questions. Students with extensive, in-depth experience in literary analysis will definitely have an advantage here. In addition, many reading passages come from literary works and primary source documents that students have been expected to read, and the more familiar students are with themes and characters of these works in advance, the easier these questions should be to answer.
In the reading section, vocabulary will be tested through the use of words within passages, requiring students to understand the nuances of words when used in different contexts.
In the writing section, students will have to analyze the structure and organization of passages, identifying strengths and weaknesses in arguments as well as themes and textual evidence. This section also tests grammar and usage.
The essay portion of the exam will now be optional, but it requires students to write an analysis of a provided source text. This means that the essay now requires students to apply skills in reading and analytical thinking as well as in composition. (Colleges and universities decide whether or not they will require the essay so students need to check with any potential colleges. It is always better to take it than not just in case.)
Practice exams are not yet available although a few sample questions are available on the CollegeBoard’s website. The CollegeBoard and Khan Academy have also teamed up to offer free “personalized” Official SAT Practice online. The difficulty of the questions adjusts to the student’s ability, so it is difficult to judge how similar the Khan Academy practice is to the actual exam.
It is probably safe to say that the new exam will be more challenging than previous versions.
With that said, James Stobaugh’s SAT Prep for the Thoughtful Christian is the first resource I am reviewing that is designed specifically for the new SAT. Stobaugh’s guide differs from most others because it is designed to take at least 25 weeks to complete. It can be completed in 25 weeks, but it can be spread out over as long as you wish. I will discuss it as if it is being used for 25 weeks.
Each week students begin by reading a devotional passage written by Stobaugh. Devotions each have a memory verse or passage and a journal question for which students should provide a written response. The devotions, written by Stobaugh, are well worth reading on their own apart from this course. Devotions are followed by five lessons for the week that follow a consistent format:
Lesson 1: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing
Lesson 2: Critical Reading and Writing
Lesson 3: SAT Essay
Lesson 4: Reading: Document-Based Analysis
Lesson 5: Math
You can see that Stobaugh’s divisions for the lessons are not identical to the sections for the actual test. While Stobaugh uses reading passages and the style of questions similar to those that students will probably encounter on the new SAT, these are not taken from official SAT material. Stobaugh definitely uses more passages with a religious flavor than does the SAT. Similarly, Stobaugh includes occasional questions that ask students to identify the worldview of a literary work. A good example is in Lesson 2 of Chapter 3 where students read a passage from Charles Darwin’s Origin of the Species, then answer questions that deal with counterarguments as a Christian would be likely to do. Students will certainly encounter few such passages and questions on the actual test.
From the sample SAT questions I could find online, it seems to me that Stobaugh’s reading passages are often lengthier than those that will be encountered on the test. However, I think that the design of the lessons in SAT Prep does a great job of preparing students partly because of the lengthier passages. Students must pay attention and remember what they are reading much more so than with short passages that can quickly be reread. All reading passages have numbers for each line or section to make it easy to identify particular passages or lines in the questions and answers.
In the first lesson each week, students read passages that are mostly from well-known literature, both prose and poetry. The questions following each passage touch on many different facets of literary analysis such as themes, tone, narrative techniques, characterizations, and genres as well as literary devices such as similes and hyperbole. Most weeks include one or two literary analysis essays written by other students. SAT Prep students answer questions in regard to these essays, sometimes evaluating the structure or the arguments used. Students will generally also encounter vocabulary questions regarding the meanings of words used within context in this lesson and, possibly, in all other lessons except the math lesson.
The second lesson works with non-fiction in the form of an article, student essay, or excerpt from a book. It frequently asks students to identify statements supported by a passage, analyze information, analyze the structure or organization of a passage, and evaluate evidence. Occasionally, graphs or charts are included. Grammar and usage questions generally show up in lessons two and/or three each week.
In the SAT Essay lessons, students will not actually write any essays. Instead, they will read and analyze student essays or essays by well-known authors. Some lessons include an image that students will analyze. Essays are always followed by a series of questions that deal with the structure, content, and style of the essay. One lesson teaches students to use the CollegeBoard’s scoring rubric to evaluate a student essay, and other lessons then ask students to score student essays. This helps build an awareness of the components of a well-written essay.
The fourth lesson is similar to previous lessons in many ways, but it always uses a historical document or essay.
The math lesson for the fifth day includes questions on algebra, geometry, problem-solving, and data analysis.
An answer key is at the back of the book. I realize it would make this 468-page book significantly larger, but I wish there were expanded explanations for the answers since I sometimes found myself wondering why Stobaugh selected one answer over another.
Stobaugh’s assumptions about definitions of worldviews in SAT Prep differs slightly in one respect from what he presents in his literature courses and from what most Christian students encounter in other worldview courses. Following the secular approach to worldviews that students are more likely to encounter on the SAT, the term theism represents any worldview that believes in any sort of higher power, be they one or many. Students should be forewarned of this since most homeschoolers are likely to think of theism in a narrower sense.
It is impossible to say for certain at this point, but SAT Prep lessons might be more challenging than the actual test even though they are not presented in the form of a timed examination. Some questions will be difficult to answer. Just as students will sometimes disagree with the "correct" answer on a standardized test, they might disagree with Stobaugh's answers. If students come up with an answer that they think is more correct than Stobaugh’s, encourage them to explain and defend their choice in contrast to Stobaugh’s. This is a great learning experience in itself. Keep in mind that this is a course that trains students to be better thinkers and better Christians, and this happens over time as students challenge themselves to think more deeply than before.