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A Guide to the New SAT for High School Guidance Counselors

The unknown is scary. It’s particularly scary when the unknown holds such a tight grip on something so important in a teenager’s life. As counselors, teachers or parents, we have all told the kids we care about that their test scores aren’t everything, and, with the hindsight of adulthood, we know this is true. But we also know that they are something. And for some students, test scores are the barrier that stands between them and a dream school, or a scholarship that will allow them to afford college, or a career path they’ve been planning since childhood.

So not only do we need to be there to help high school students stay calm and grounded during this time of transition, but we also need to be able to give them practical advice before it’s too late.

This is why we have created this Guide to the New SAT for high school guidance counselors (and the students who love them). We’ve gotten tons of questions from counselors, parents, and students about the new SAT, and here you’ll find our best answers.


Choose your question to jump down to the answer:

Why is the SAT changing, anyway?

Is the new SAT going to be harder? easier?

Why won’t new SAT scores and concordance tables be available until May 2016?

So how can I compare new SAT, current SAT, and ACT scores right now?

Should I tell my students to take the current SAT, the new SAT, or the ACT this year?

What about superscoring?

Should students take the optional essay?

How can students prepare for the new SAT?

What are the most important things I need to know about helping students prepare for the Redesigned SAT?


Why is the SAT changing anyway?

When the College Board announced the Redesigned SAT in 2014, its president, David Coleman, admitted that the SAT had become “far too disconnected from the work of our high schools.” The old SAT was frequently criticized for being too tricky and too much a measure of a student’s ability to learn the test rather than of their mastery of its underlying concepts. Before he led the charge for the new SAT, Coleman played a key role in the development of the Common Core, hence the association between the new SAT and Common Core standards. The new SAT aims to be a better test of what students are learning in schools and less biased against low-income and underrepresented students. (Of course, the verdict is still out on whether or not this will actually be the case.)

Despite these noble ambitions, it is impossible to ignore the fact that the SAT has lost significant ground to the ACT in recent years. In 2012, more students took the ACT than the SAT for the first time, and the pattern has continued ever since. So it is hard to believe that the overhaul of the SAT doesn’t have anything to do with market share. By eliminating the guessing penalty, the difficult vocabulary, and the required essay, the SAT has become more ACT-like in rather appealing ways.

Nevertheless, although the distinctions between the SAT and ACT have decreased, it is important not to overestimate their similarities. They remain two different tests, and it still quite likely that most students are better suited to one over the other.


Is the new SAT going to be harder? easier?

We’ve gotten this question a lot. Despite media reports to the contrary, the answer is neither. Like most standardized tests, the new SAT will be normed so that scores are evenly distributed. So even if the content somehow becomes much easier or harder, it would accordingly become harder or easier to achieve a certain score, and so everything balances out.

This doesn’t mean, however, that the new SAT won’t be easier or harder for certain students based on their individual strengths and preferences. It will likely be “easier” than the current SAT for students who are paralyzed by a guessing penalty (there is no penalty on the new test), who are weak in vocabulary (no testing of very difficult words), or who are confused by tricky math problems (the new test is much more school-like). It will be “harder” than the current SAT for students who struggle with doing math by hand (there is a no-calculator section), who are unfamiliar with advanced math concepts (the new test includes basic trig), or who are weak readers (the passages are longer and, in some cases, more dense or archaic).


Why won’t new SAT scores and concordance tables be available until May 2016?

For both counselors and admissions officers, this is one of the biggest headaches of the 2015-2016 school year. Students who take the March 5, 2016 SAT exam won’t receive their scores until the May 7, 2016 scores are also released. This is so the College Board can ensure that it has had the opportunity to compare scores across a larger sample pool and two separate test administrations. It is a responsible move, perhaps, but it doesn’t make it any easier for students to make definitive decisions about their testing plan. They won’t know for months if their March scores were “good enough” or if they need to keep preparing for a later spring or fall test.


It is my recommendation that any student who takes the March test also automatically plans to take the May or June SAT. Historically, 55% of students improve their scores on a retake, so the odds are in their favor that they can improve (particularly on a test as unfamiliar as the new SAT). Signing up for a June retake, if possible, might be the smarter move. Students will have their March scores by then and can make a decision about whether or not they want to go through with another test. This is a far better option than having to find a standby testing center or delay a retake until the fall.


So how can I compare new SAT, current SAT, and ACT scores right now?

For many counselors, the greatest frustration is not over the delay in scores until May, but the absence of any concordance table that will allow them to determine which test a student should prepare for.  However, at the 2015 NACAC conference in San Diego, Stacy Caldwell, College Board’s Vice President of the SAT, reassured an anxious crowd that new SAT scores are not likely to be very different from the ones provided with College Board Redesigned practice tests. And I think there is no reason why this shouldn’t be the case.

We all know that the scale or “curve” varies a bit between tests, but a score on an official Redesigned SAT practice test should be comparable to a score a student would receive on the real deal. To find these practice tests and scoring guides in PDF form, you can log into Khan Academy’s Redesigned SAT website and click on the tab that says “Full Exams.” (Scoring guides are NOT currently available in the College Board’s Official SAT Study Guide.)

Since the official concordance tables for the SAT and ACT have always relied on a 1600 scale instead of a 2400 scale (and because scores on the new SAT are supposed to roughly align with scores on the current SAT), students and schools should be able to use current concordance tables to compare their results on a Redesigned SAT practice test and an ACT practice test.  This will allow students to make decisions right now about which test they should pursue. Of course, there will be some complications resulting from the combination of the previously separate Reading and Writing scores into one score on the new SAT. Nevertheless, existing concordance tables should still be able to give students a good benchmark. Once Redesigned PSAT scores are available in mid-December, students can also compare these results to ACT scores by adding a “0” onto their individual section scores (so a 68 in math becomes a 680) to approximate their projected Redesigned SAT scores.

If students want to compare a current SAT score (out of 2400) to an ACT score, we have a concordance table they can use here. This converted ACT score can then be used to predict a Redesigned SAT score using the 1600-scale concordance table. It’s not an exact science, but it will be close enough to make some decisions right now on a test plan.


And now for the BIG QUESTION….


Should I tell my students to take the current SAT, the new SAT, or the ACT this year?

This is perhaps the most important question currently facing guidance counselors (and one of the most common questions we got at this year’s NACAC conference).

There are five main test plan options available to juniors this year:

Here they are in multiple-choice form:

A. Accelerate their testing schedule to take the current SAT in November, December, and/or January rather than wait until spring.  

For students who would prefer to take the current SAT, have completed Algebra II and geometry, and have good vocabularies, this could be a smart move.

B. Take both the current SAT and the new SAT.

Some students might wish to do this to make sure they are covering their bases, but a better option would be to take practice tests of both now and compare the results. The current SAT and new SAT are different tests and they should be treated this way. Just as it is not always the best idea to divide test prep efforts between the SAT and ACT, it’s not the best idea to divide efforts between the current and new SAT. Use practice tests to help students determine whether they prefer the current or new SAT and prep accordingly.

C. Take the new SAT only.

Since the PSAT has been redesigned to match the new SAT, this October’s PSAT should give students a good feel for the new SAT. For students that need a few more months to advance in their coursework or for adequate test prep, planning well ahead for the new SAT is a better option than rushing a testing schedule.

D. Forget about the SAT, and take the ACT instead.

I understand the impulse to simply tell students to just take the ACT this year, and I would bet my bottom dollar that the ACT is going to see a spike in test-takers. The new SAT just seems too risky. But for some students (particularly those who struggle with timing or with science), the ACT may not be a better option than the new SAT. But if a practice test reveals the ACT is a clear winner, by all means, hunker down with some ACT test prep and forget about the SAT.

E. Take both the ACT and the SAT or new SAT

Technically, if they wanted to, students could take three different tests this year, but I don’t think this is the best plan. Not only does it require students to divide their test prep efforts between very different tests, but it requires more weekends in a testing center while limiting options for retakes and subject tests. It’s better to make a decision early on using practice test results and stick with it. If students are determined to choose this option, however, it still makes sense for them to determine now whether the new SAT or the current SAT is better for them. This will allow the student to either focus on the ACT for a winter test and the new SAT for a spring test or the current SAT for a winter test and the ACT for a spring test. Taking all three tests would require a school year’s worth of test prep with the current SAT in the winter and then both ACT and new SAT in the spring (this is a LOT!). Of course, fall of senior year is always an option for a third test, but it is never ideal to be making major standardized test decisions then.

Overall, the theme here is to make sure students have two key pieces of data in hand before they make a decision on one of the above plans: 1) A PSAT or practice SAT score and 2) a PLAN or practice ACT score.

Practice tests make for better indicators than PSAT/PLAN scores that might be outdated, as long as they are taken under timed, simulated testing conditions. As a bonus, research shows that engaging with a full-length practice test is the one of the best ways to improve an SAT or ACT score, so the experience will be valuable for them regardless.


What about superscoring?

There’s an important caveat to the above advice, and that is superscoring. It remains unclear how colleges that currently allow superscoring will handle scores from both the current SAT and new SAT. Some schools have promised that they will develop a system for superscoring between tests; others are not likely to allow superscoring between the “old” SAT and the new one. So this means if a student is targeting schools that consider scores from multiple test dates, it is in their best interest to take multiple sittings of the same test format. This means students who are thinking about giving the current SAT a go shouldn’t wait until January to do it.


Should students take the optional essay?

This is an interesting one, particularly when you hear a statistic from the College Board that it estimates only about 25% of colleges and universities will require the essay. Keep in mind, though, that for many students, it is likely at least one if not all of their target or reach schools will fall into this 25%. Also keep in mind that many colleges and universities are still developing their policies on the SAT essay. There will likely be some more clarity by spring, but I wouldn’t expect it to be crystal clear. Students will be able to find a list of colleges and universities that require the essay on the College Board’s site, but if there is any doubt at all–take the essay.


How can students prepare for the new SAT?

In addition to Magoosh’s New SAT Prep and resources, the best tools a student has at his or her fingertips are the free resources from the College Board. So far, the College Board has released four official practice tests through the Khan Academy that students can complete online or download in paper format with accompanying scoring guides. Many other test prep companies have begun to roll out books, classes, and tutoring for the new SAT, but many have yet to do so. And it is important to keep in mind that this is new for everyone, so test prep resources should be carefully evaluated to see how closely they model the new SAT before schools or students select them as an option.


What are the most important things I need to know about helping students prepare for the Redesigned SAT?

Here’s the gist:

    1. Students have five main testing options this year (see above for more details on which options are best for which students):
      • take only the current SAT
      • take only the new SAT
      • take only the ACT
      • take both the current and new SAT
      • take both the ACT and the current or new SAT
    2. Make sure students take either the Redesigned PSAT or an official Redesigned SAT practice test before making any decisions about the new test. Don’t let them cave to rumors!
    3. Help students make a decision as early as possible about which test to take. There’s no reason to wait for Redesigned PSAT scores or concordance tables (see above). Students still have the opportunity to take the current SAT–if that proves to be a better option for them–but they need to move now.

Choosing one test and sticking with it will give students the most options regarding score choice and superscoring. It’s going to be confusing in college admissions offices next fall; we don’t want any student falling through the cracks because his or her test history can’t be fairly compared.

Unless a student is absolutely positive he or she won’t apply to a school that isn’t on the published essay-optional list, prepare for the new SAT essay. Colleges and universities are still developing their policies not only on superscoring, but on the essay. Having an essay score in hand will prevent an unnecessary last-minute retake in the fall.