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The New SAT: What Will It Look Like for Math?

Last week the College Board announced major revisions to its college-entrance exam, the SAT. Starting in 2016, the new test will be slimmer and more reflective of the Common Core State Standards, which board president David Coleman helped develop. My colleague Caralee Adams has the details here.

But what does this mean for the math section? 

According to the board, the redesigned math portion will "draw from fewer topics" and focus on three main areas: "problem solving and data analysis; the heart of algebra; and passport to advanced math." The current SAT samples a wider range of high school-level content with just a question or two on each topic, which requires students "to cover a great deal of math to be prepared for all topics," the board said.

In a phone interview, Linda Gojak, president of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, said that honing in on critical math topics, rather than looking at a variety of topics superficially, is "the right thing to do."

"If we're going to be focused on what's important in both college and career paths, we can't cover things so broadly and with the lack of depth in the way we have," she said. 

W. Gary Martin, professor of secondary math education at Auburn University, is a bit more skeptical. "The changes in the math section sound good on the surface, but how well will they fit with the curriculum that is being taught?," he wrote in an email. "To the degree that the SAT does not become a de facto additional curriculum that many high school math teachers now feel they need to address (as is often the case now), this will be a step forward." However, he said, if it is not aligned with the common-core standards, which most states have adopted, "it will not help that much."

Three Math Areas

The new problem solving and data analysis items will ask students to use "ratios, percentages and proportional reasoning to solve problems in real world situations, including science, social science, and career contexts," Coleman said in a speech about the new test. It gets away from "disconnected problems or tricky situations" and is "really about being quantitatively literate." 

The algebra portion will focus on linear equations and systems, which Coleman said are foundational to subjects "like advanced algebra and calculus, or statistics, or applying math in fields like economics."

And the passport to advanced math section, said Coleman, "requires familiarity with more complex equations or functions, which open up fields like calculus." Those items are meant to focus on the math needed to pursue careers in the STEM fields.

Gojak is particularly encouraged by the emphasis on understanding data. "We're surrounded by so much data all time, whether through the newspaper or television or academic papers," she said. "To focus on data, I think, is really critical."

Calculator Restrictions

The other major change to the math section is that there will now be calculator and non-calculator portions. Currently, students can use a calculator throughout the test. 

Coleman said the non-calculator portion aims to assess fluency and number sense. 

For Martin, this presents a contradiction. "If they are assessing students' readiness for the future, why would calculators be forbidden? I don't know of a workplace in the world that would prohibit the use of any technology that will help, including calculators," he wrote. "To me, the more important issue is whether students can effectively use calculators and other technology to solve problems, and interpret the results appropriately."

Gojak said she's OK with this revision. "I've seen middle school kids use calculators for some of the dumbest reasons I've ever seen. If they thought about what the numbers meant, they could do the calculations in their head," she said. "When I taught middle school, I often had calculator section and a non-calculator section." And often students performed better without the tool, she added. 

It's interesting to note that both of the consortia developing common-core tests will allow calculators for some portions of their exams. 

For a side-by-side comparison of the new SAT and the common-core standards, see this Education Week chart

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