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A look inside the new SAT math section

campus building in Texas
campus building in Texas
Cathy McMeekan

What was behind the College Board’s redesign of the math section of the SAT? They know that for most students math has become more about repetitive memorization and procedures and less about learning the concepts and reasoning in mathematics. Though students argue that much of the math they learn in school won’t be applicable to their everyday lives, the skills like problem solving, ratios, conversions and data interpretation are used in everyday life – just maybe not in the same way they see it in math class. Post-secondary educators know that math skills are important both for success in college and in the working world. Now the College Board will be testing those math skills that they have deemed as strongly aligned with the ability to advance through college, career training and work opportunities.

The current SAT tests math in three sections, all of which allow the use of a calculator. The test covers a mix of arithmetic, geometry, algebra 1 and basic algebra 2 and all sections are relatively short in terms of timing, either 20 or 25 minutes in length. The current test awards one point for correct answers and takes a way a quarter of a point for wrong answers.

The new SAT will test math in two sections, one of which is 55 minutes long and the other 25 minutes. The shorter section will not allow use of calculators. Both the old and new tests include multiple choice questions and ones where students must grid-in their answers. There will only be four options for multiple choice answers where in the past there were always five options, and there will be no penalty for wrong answers.

The topics covered in the new SAT math sections will test what College Board considers “key areas.” According to the College Board, these areas will include four content areas: “Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, Passport to Advanced Math, and Additional Topics in Math. Questions in each content area span the full range of difficulty and address relevant practices, fluency, and conceptual understanding.”

The “Heart of Algebra” includes solving equations and systems of equations, working with formulas, and expressing mathematical concepts to solve problems. “Problem Solving and Data Analysis” will include working with graphs, ratios, percents, units and proportions, and summarizing data. “Passport to Advanced Math” includes working with quadratic and higher order equations and will require students to be able to reorder expressions and equations. The final “Additional Topics in Math” will include some geometry, trigonometry and solving problems “in context” which can only mean story problems!

According to the College Board, the redesigned math section emphasizes problem solving skills, modeling, using appropriate tools strategically, and looking for and making use of structure to do algebra. There will be multi-part questions worth several points and there will be new types of questions that put math into practical scenarios. In making these changes the test places understanding of math concepts over just knowing the formulaic procedures.