Part 3: The New SAT Reading Section

The new SAT Reading section will ------- the sometimes ------- vocabulary tested on the current SAT, and will instead challenge students with more practical language in context.

(A) expunge . . visceral

(B) venerate . . arcane

(C) recapitulate . . superfluous

(D) eschew . . grandiloquent

(E) distend . . outlandish

When students sit for the new SAT, they will no longer have to do battle with questions like this one. In spring 2016, sentence completion questions ("vocabulary questions", as they are known to students) will go the way of analogies and quantitative comparisons: straight into the standardized test garbage heap. No more index cards, no more memorization of vocabulary that seems to have been drawn from rarely visited pages of the Oxford English Dictionary, 16th-century Edition…this is music to students' ears. While sentence completion questions currently constitute only about 30 percent of the current SAT reading score (the other 70 percent comprises passage-based reading comprehension multiple choice questions), they are the bane of many a student's standardized testing existence. Their presence will not be missed.

Of all the current sections to be revised to construct the new SAT, the Reading is the one that
will be changing the least. This, however, does not mean the section won't look and feel significantly different than its present-day counterpart. Beside eliminating sentence completion questions, the new SAT Reading section will feature new question types that will challenge students to support their answers with evidence, analyze graphical or tabular media linked to reading passages, and identify the meaning of words that can take on alternative definitions based on context.

Major Change 1: Structure

The current SAT features three sections, two long and one slightly shorter. They appear distributed across the ten sections of the exam, each one featuring both sentence completion and reading comprehension questions. Reading comprehension questions are based on either a single passage or on paired passages whose viewpoints often contrast.




Long Reading


25 min

   Sentence Comp



   Reading Comp



Long Reading


25 min

   Sentence Comp



   Reading Comp



Short Reading


20 min

   Sentence Comp



   Reading Comp



Structure of the current SAT Reading sections.

The structure of the new SAT does not require a chart to describe: it's one 65-minute, 52-question section in which there will be four single passages and one paired passage for students to read. 

The extended length and fully passage-based structure of the new SAT Reading section means there will be little respite for students who find reading difficult. On the current test, the vocabulary questions provide a way for students to ease themselves into the reading sections; while those require focus, the extended attention necessitated by the large chunks of text in the reading passages requires more. Now, students will have to be ready to read and comprehend larger passages right out of the gate. 

Major Change 2: Content

Turn to any reading passage on the current SAT's reading section, and you'll see a fiction or nonfiction passage written between 1850 and 2005. These passages are pulled from a wide variety of published sources written at a high school or college level. The new SAT will draw largely from the same pool for its reading passage content, but will introduce a new type of literature to be tested: foundational historical documents. Each administration of the new SAT will have in its reading section one document that is considered historically significant. Examples might include George Washington's final address, Martin Luther King's writings, or the proceedings of a Congressional hearing. 

The more interesting change to the reading content comes in the form of new question types. On the current SAT, reading questions span roughly three categories: (1) Main Idea questions, which focus on the author's purpose or intent, (2) Words in Context questions, which ask students to approximate the meaning of a word in the passage, and (3) Detail questions, which require students to understand the specific points made and literary devices used in the passages. Within each of these categories are multiple sub-categories that can be used to classify reading comprehension questions, but there is a common thread that binds all of them: the main idea. Students must be able to grasp a localized or overall main idea of a passage to understand the root of any correct answer choice. The New SAT Reading Section

The very nature of reading means this will not change on the new SAT: high-level reading will simply require high-level understanding, as it always has and always will. Comprehension, however, will be tested in new ways on the revised version of the SAT. For starters, new "evidentiary support" questions will ask students to substantiate their answers to previous questions; students will have to provide a one-two punch to show that they know what a word, phrase, or argument is intended to demonstrate, and that they understand how they know. 

Other new question types will include the "replacements" of the vocabulary questions. Context-based definition questions do appear on the current SAT, but will be heavily emphasized on the new exam. What's more, the words these questions highlight will be basic, but important. Consider the following example that uses the word "hailed"

John hailed his crowd of supporters; in turn, John's supporters hailed the coming of a new age in transparent local politics.

In a very literal and physical sense, the first instance of "hailed" approximates "acknowledged" or "greeted", whereas the second, more abstract usage more closely approximates "enthusiastically welcomed". Those of you who are reading and thinking, "Duh…I can't believe they're making the test this easy…" would be in for a jarring reality check if you were to become aware of how many students struggle with making a simple distinction based on the alternative uses of a common word. Rather than introducing a series of "gimmes", the College Board will be using this question type to challenge students to use context to understand the ways in which language is varied to create nuanced meanings. (For an example of this type of question, click here.) The New SAT Reading Section

The last major new question type that will appear on the new SAT will feature different forms of media accompanying the text. On each new Reading section, there will be two passages–––one based in the social sciences, the other in the natural sciences–––that will include tables, charts, and graphs that supplement the conventional readings. There will be an emphasis based on what we'd like to call "fact checking": making sure that a hypothetical conclusion made based on a chart accompanying the reading is actually substantiated by the reading itself. This will test students' abilities in linking multiple types of media together to form a more meaningful understanding of the content to which they are exposed. As is the case with the new Mathematics section, this is an acknowledgment by the College Board that, in order to be literate in college and in the workplace, students will need to field, integrate, and interpret information from multiple sources simultaneously.

The reasoning the College Board is introducing these new question types is obvious: knowing why something is correct is just as important as (if not more important than) knowing that that thing is correct in the first place. This is all a reflection of the College Board's overall aim to make the SAT more relevant to college admissions offices. If the new changes do as they are intended–––that is, if they allow colleges to accurately predict the level of a student's analytical faculties–––the College Board will have achieved its goal.  


While reading will always be characterized by understanding words on a page, the new SAT reading section will introduce changes intended to test higher levels of comprehension. While the old-guard absurd vocabulary questions will be going away, the College Board is replacing them with question types it claims will reveal more about students' abilities to understand what they're reading. 

And, for those of you who did your due diligence by reading the entire piece, D is the correct answer choice to this post's opening question. 

Check back tomorrow for the next post in our new SAT blog series!

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