Are Your Kids Ready for the New SAT Essay?

You gotta pity the Class of 2017. This spring, juniors will be hit with a triple-whammy – the timed essay of the EAP (it’s a California thing), Common Core SBAC testing, and the premiere of the new SAT in March. Yeah, these kids will be at the forefront of some high-stakes testing and you know what they say about life on the cutting edge – it often makes you bleed.

I’ve talked in the past about SBAC prep and my department’s EAP scores are strong, but the SAT? Oh that new SAT, the source of so much stress. One of my freshmen actually took the SAT earlier this month because her parents wanted a baseline score cemented using the current exam. It’s not that the redesigned SAT arriving this spring is harder than the older SAT; it’s just that the test isn’t yet known. And that causes anxiety. Until the first few rounds of students’ scores are released, we won’t really know the impact of the changes on student performance.

Always the optimist, I choose to see some good news in all of these changes. First, students will no longer be dinged a quarter-point for every wrong answer. It used to be better to leave an answer blank than to take a guess when uncertain. As of March 2016, that wrong answer penalty disappears, so kids should try and answer every question. Second, the most archaic vocabulary is being boiled away. I mean, have you seen some of the words on the current test? Perfidious? Adumbrate? Legerdemain? Sheesh. Finally, the essay has been completely overhauled to better reflect what students will actually need to be able to do in college – understand how a writer builds an argument. Though this essay is more challenging, it can be mastered by equipping teens with an understanding of the basic tools of rhetoric and teaching them to thoughtfully apply a writing formula.

SATEssayInfographicRandazzoBlogWhat’s Changed in the SAT Essay?

Pretty much everything. Kids will have more time (50 min. vs. 25 min.), they’ll read a longer argument essay from a published author, and they’ll write an analysis essay explaining how the author uses specific rhetorical devices to support his/her stance. Previously, students read a brief description of someone’s opinion, decided whether they agreed/disagreed, and then supported their position with concrete examples from their lives and their studies. In the new SAT, the College Board doesn’t care about students’ opinions. Instead, the task is all about deconstructing someone else’s argument.

This new analysis essay is actually better because it focuses on a skill set folks will need not only in college, but also in adult life. Our career and military-bound students, who’ll never have to face the SAT beast armed only with a fistful of pencils, should also be able to recognize and comment upon the techniques that people use to try to persuade them.

So I recently got busy doin’ what I do – building the tools my kids need to get this job done. I’ll start with a lecture explaining the changes to the essay and a blueprint for students to follow. Then, I’ve planned three full-class lessons where students will dig into published argument essays on high-interest modern topics (intestinal worms, anyone?) and follow guiding questions to help them discover the architecture behind each piece of writing. My students already know a bit about Aristotle’s Tools of Rhetoric, but they need more examples of those elements in action. The argument essays were chosen because they’ll help kids spot and intelligently think about:
Quality of statistical information presented
Quality of sources cited by the author
Connotative qualities of specific word choices
Use of logical reasoning
Use of emotional appeals
Use of juxtaposition
Use of allusion to other famous works
Use of rhetorical questions to engage the reader
Use of figurative language
Author’s tone
Structure of an argument (presenting evidence from weakest to strongest)

I’m still not sure if I’ll use these as one-per-month assignments this spring or stitch them into a two-week rhetoric extravaganza with my Steve Jobs materials and fun Logical Fallacies lecture, but either way my students won’t be left quaking and shaking by the thought of this essay. This solid foundation will keep ‘em standing strong.

Finally, as a small reward for making it all the way to the end of a blog post about SAT essay writing (ugh!), here’s a FREE copy of my SAT-style rubric based on the new 4-3-2-1 scale. Instead of grading holistically, the College Board will now assess three separate areas of a student’s work – reading, analysis, and writing. Two readers score every paper, so a top score on an essay will soon look like: 8-8-8. You can read more about the scoring changes here. Also, the College Board has released two prompts and student samples, which you can check out here. My items are modeled after the College Board guidelines, but built on different source material.

Teach on, everyone!


8 thoughts on “Are Your Kids Ready for the New SAT Essay?

  1. Hi Laura! Do you happen to have any sample SAT-style essays for your three SAT “Deconstruct the Argument” texts?

  2. Sorry, Eng10Santos. I have only ones produced by my last crop of juniors and I haven’t received permission to share those. Sorry about that!

  3. Hi Laura! I was just wondering if you teach your students the SAT (Multiple Choice) Reading Section and if you have any useful tips that you give them for when they take the exam. Do you also have tips for any other multiple choice English exam your students might take (such as the ACT, AP, or SBAC exams)? Thank you!! 🙂

  4. Hey, Heather, great question! The bulk of the curriculum I teach is rigorous and designed to build college-prep level academic skills, so I don’t spend a ton of time on prep for specific exams. I do, though, think it’s important for kids to be somewhat familiar with the testing format to increase their comfort level as they head into those exams. To help with this, I chop up sample questions to use as occasional bell-ringers in the spring semester. I shared a chunk of these here on the blog for the SBAC (the exam we used in California):

    I’ve done the same with SAT questions because that’s the spring state test for juniors up here in Idaho, but those questions came from a purchased exam prep book and I’m not allowed to share those here. Still, you can grab sample questions from The College Board’s website or visit your library to find some source material for that.

    After kids jot down their answers privately, we review the correct answers as a class and then get on with the day’s regular lesson plan. Hope this helps! 🙂

  5. Thanks! How long do those bell-ringers take? I teach 50-minute periods and I’m worried they may take too much time. Also, how many of the SBAC/SAT questions do you have your students answer when you give them the bellringers?

    Also, do you give them any tips on how to most effectively answer multiple choice questions?

    For example, do you teach them how exactly to find the BEST answer choice for each question? Or how to focus on boring passages? Or any other ELA standardized test multiple choice question-related skills?

    Thank you!

  6. Yeah, Heather, I try to keep those bell-ringers brief; we usually take five-to-seven minutes or maybe up to 10 minutes if there’s a longer reading passage involved. Most of the slices include three-to-five questions for reading comp. and six-to-10 questions for vocab. or grammar. It really just depends on how the prep book is organized, but I do try my best to keep things brief and tidy.

    As for tips, my advice is just the standard stuff – you know, read the questions before you read the long passage, annotate as you go, trust your gut and stick with your first answer unless you have a really compelling reason to change your mind. No magic here, just common sense. You also might send interested kids to YouTube, where there’s a ton of folks happy to dissect test-taking strategies:

    Have a great week! Laura

  7. Thanks! By the way, what prep book do you use to grab SAT questions from?

  8. I’ve used the ones from both The College Board and Kaplan. No preference. They both get the job done. The College Board also has some free materials on their website if you want to grab those as a starter. 🙂

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