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Chris Lele

Will the SAT Reading Be More Difficult?

Reaction to New York Times article: “New, Reading-Heavy SAT Has Students Worried”

To say that the reading section is getting more difficult is grossly simplifying what is actually happening. The reason people might be thinking that the new test is harder, is that it will include one passage taken from a pre-20th century text (whether it be a snippet from Charlotte Bronte or 100 lines of Adam Smith). Yes, these are dense, challenging passages, but the old test tended to have one pre-20th century or early 20th century work as well, the passages were just shorter.

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More importantly, what the old test did have was a lot of modern stylistic prose that is virtually absent from the new test. With the new test, the College Board has selected modern texts that are mostly factual, albeit sometimes dense.

So, which one is easier or more difficult?
Here are two examples, three sentences each, one taken from The Official Study Guide for the New SAT and the other from the old Official Guide.

“Anthropologists describe gift-giving as a positive social process, serving various political, religious, and psychological functions. Economists, however, offer a less favorable view. According to Waldfogel, gift-giving represents an objective waste of resources.”

The Official Study Guide for the New SAT pg. 337

“But, at least insofar as the Western world is concerned, this line of thought is an anachronism, rendered obsolete by its own success. Nor are environmentalists the only people reluctant to acknowledge the good news; advocates at both ends of the political spectrum, each side for its own reason, seem to have tacitly agreed to play it down. The Left is afraid of the environmental good news because it undercuts stylish pessimism; the Right is afraid of the good news because it shows that government regulations might occasionally amount to something other than wickedness incarnate, and actually produce benefits at an affordable cost.

The Official Guide for the old test pg. 726


Sure, I kind of stacked the deck on the last passage (congratulate yourself if you get all the way through) by choosing one of the more challenging parts of an already challenging passage. My point, though, is to show just how stylistic and cerebral the modern texts tended to be on the old SAT. By contrast, the first excerpt is dry and academic.

Arguing even more against the notion that the new test is easier is the fact that the old SAT was “trickier” (as the article points out), so even if you were able to understand most of what you read, you were in no way assured of actually answering the question correctly. Case and point:

The phrase “wickedness incarnate” (line 84) is used to
(A) cast aspersion on bureaucratic ineptitude
(B) parody the language used by people with certain political leanings
(C) convey humorously a deep longing of the author
(D) rail against blatant polluters of the environment
(E) suggest the quasi-religious underpinnings of environmentalism

The New SAT, on the other hand, has questions and answer choices that aren’t meticulously and diabolically, I might add, designed to trap most students. If you understand the text, you’ll most likely get the question right. As an example, here is how the New SAT might ask the question:

The author mentions both sides of the political spectrum to show that
(A) environmentalism is a movement embraced by most.
(B) both are reluctant to ascribe much importance to the positive news about the environment.
(C) many advocates for environmental reform have political connections.
(D) without the actions of major politicians the environment will continue to be endangered

Assuming you understood the excerpt, this is much easier, right? (By the way, the answer for both questions is (B)).

I believe what is causing most students anxiety, with the latest reading test, is the one out of five passages in which the language is archaic; meaning it is more than 100 years old. Remember, the New SAT is mostly looking for whether a student can identify the main point that John Locke or Virginia Woolf is trying to convey. It is not adding the extra dimension of “trickiness”.

It’s unclear which test is more difficult since a lot comes down to what is more difficult for a student to understand, pre-20th century writing or heavily stylistic modern writing. The article, however, is misleading by saying that the new test benefits the rich. This might be the case if we make the unlikely assumption that such students have a penchant for the way prose was written in the 19th century versus prose of the ilk provided by our “wickedness incarnate” author above.

My advice, then, is for students to pick up Pride and Prejudice or Wuthering Heights and get used to that style of writing. Also, English teachers who have not included any pre-20th century texts in their class might consider doing so. Both might also include more factual reading (The Economist or Scientific American jump to mind). As for “gaming” the reading section, the game is more about comprehension, as it should be, and all students stand to benefit from improving in this area.


About Chris Lele

Chris Lele is the GRE and SAT Curriculum Manager (and vocabulary wizard) at Magoosh Online Test Prep. In his time at Magoosh, he has inspired countless students across the globe, turning what is otherwise a daunting experience into an opportunity for learning, growth, and fun. Some of his students have even gone on to get near perfect scores. Chris is also very popular on the internet. His GRE channel on YouTube has over 8 million views.

You can read Chris's awesome blog posts on the Magoosh GRE blog and High School blog!

You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook!

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