by Jai Flicker and Dr. Jeremy Jensen, Psy. D.
In March of 2016, the College Board released a complete overhaul of the SAT, its first update in over a decade. Since then, many parents and students have wondered whether they should take the new SAT or to stick with the ACT. I have spent some time researching this, as well as discussing it with other test prep professionals, and hope to shed some light on this to help make your decision easier.
Interestingly, all of the changes to the SAT make it more like the ACT. There has always existed a fair amount of overlap between the two tests, but with this new revision that has never been more true. In a way, this makes deciding which to take harder because the tests are now so similar. On the other hand, it makes this same choice less consequential because the tests are now so similar.
That said, the larger test prep community that I am connected to has tended to direct students toward the ACT for the past year for one simple reason: there is much more test prep material available for the ACT than there is for the new SAT, simply because the ACT has been around for so much longer. The College Board (the company that makes the SAT) has only released six full length practice tests and only four of these are included in their new SAT prep book. That is down from ten full length exams included in their previous prep book. In time, the College Board will release more prep material and third party vendors will refine theirs so as to better reflect the nuances of the real test. Right now, the latter process is very much underway. This is why we currently point students toward the ACT.
The question remains: what are the differences between the old SAT and the new version, and in what ways does that make the new SAT more like the ACT?
Let's take a look at each of the major updates to the SAT to find out.
The SAT no longer assess a guessing penalty.
One of the biggest differences between the old SAT and the ACT had to do with the SAT's dreaded "guessing penalty." On the old SAT, wrong answers received a 1/4 point deduction. This was meant to discourage students from blindly guessing, but in practice it induced panic in many students. It would hang over their heads, causing them to overthink their answers. Many students preferred the lack of a guessing penalty offered by the ACT. Now neither test assesses a penalty for wrong answers.
The SAT now utilizes a four answer-choice format, down from five.
Another big change to the SAT relates to the number of answer choices each question includes. The SAT has always presented five answers to choose from per question, while most sections of the ACT present only four (the ACT Math section uses five). Trying to select an answer out of four instead of five is easier, especially when using the process of elimination.
The SAT now consists of longer sections, but contains fewer of them.
A notable difference between the old SAT and the ACT was the number of sections each contained. The old SAT was composed of 9 sections, most of which lasted 20 to 25 minutes. In contrast, the ACT is made up of longer sections, but contains only one section for each subject. The new version of the SAT adopts a format similar to the ACT. It now contains one Reading section, one Writing section, and two Math sections (one with a calculator and one without). The SAT also includes an optional Essay section (see below).
The Essay section on the SAT is now optional.
The SAT used to always kick off with an essay, which everyone had to take. This is not the case on the new SAT. They have made the essay optional and moved it to the end of the test. I generally encourage students to take the essay, although this advice varies depending on the student their unique situation.
The new SAT now includes science questions.
One of the biggest, most obvious differences between the old SAT and the ACT was the fact that the ACT includes a Science section. Contrary to how it sounds, this section does not test for deep science knowledge, but rather asks students to interpret data from charts, tables, and graphs. While the new SAT did not add in a stand-alone science section, it does include data analysis questions that are comparable to those found in the ACT.
The new SAT emphasizes content taught in school.
The math content in the new SAT is designed to be more representative of content taught in schools, similar to the ACT. In the past, the SAT utilized familiar concepts but presented questions that used these concepts in novel ways. The ACT math section has always been more reflective of what students learn in class. The new SAT has moved in that direction as well. The new SAT has also done away with analogy questions, which tested students on their knowledge of obscure vocabulary words.
As I said earlier, with this recent redesign there has never been less of a difference between the SAT and the ACT. One practical difference that remains has to do with timing. The ACT tends to offer more questions per section but designs each question to each take less time. The SAT provides more time per question, but they tend to take a bit longer to answer. Because the tests are now so similar, people often make a bigger deal out of this difference than is warranted. For some students this difference in pacing will matter, but most students that I have worked with don't notice it.
Hopefully this overview helps to illuminate the differences and similarities between the new version of the SAT and the ACT. If you have any questions or would like more information about test prep at LifeWorks, please visit our test prep page here.
Very honored that the truly brilliant educator Wes Carroll has written, in his words, "a response" to my recent piece on the importance of our attitude toward work. His initial observation captures something that we often talk about amongst ourselves at LifeWorks, "that there's more to teaching than knowing the material and knowing how to teach."
You can check out Wes's excellent post here:
A freshman boy came in to see me not long ago. His grades had slipped and his parents couldn’t figure out why. He was clearly bright and had even received substantial tutoring elsewhere, but something wasn’t working.
So I asked him what he thought was going on. As it turned out, it wasn’t a mystery. Simply put, he was struggling to stay motivated in school and, as a result, was falling further and further behind.
Rather than chide this student for being lazy or give him a “pep talk” to try to motivate him, I instead worked with him to help transform his attitude toward school, and toward work in general. And after this one session, as extreme as this may sound, his work ethic in school turned around completely.
When he came in the following week he immediately got down to work, remained focused for the entire session, and left having completed all of his homework. It was as if I was witnessing a different student. And it wasn’t just that he was more productive. He carried himself differently. I saw in him a new sense of self-confidence and purpose.
In my more than 15 years of working with students, I had never witnessed such a dramatic turnaround. His transformation was, in fact, what inspired me to write this piece about the approach I used in that pivotal session.
* * *
Part of my approach to working with attitude comes from my exposure to mindfulness practice. One definition of mindfulness is the act of staying present, in a non-judgmental way, with whatever arises. During meditation, unpleasant or uncomfortable sensations often arise: boredom, physical aches and pains, sleepiness, agitation. In our day to day lives, when these inner experiences occur, most of us find ways to distract ourselves from them. We grab something to eat, watch TV or jump online. Part of the benefit of mindfulness practice is that it teaches us to make peace with our own inner lives.
There is a beautiful phrase in Buddhism that captures this idea. It is called “turning toward.” Instead of trying to ignore discomfort, we turn toward it, investigate it, get curious about its qualities even. And, remarkably, when we do, our awareness expands to make more room for whatever may be arising. It is not that the discomfort goes away, but rather that our relationship to it changes.
I wanted to bring this same lesson to my students. So I started using the following trick whenever students were dreading their homework: I would invite them to start working, just for a few minutes, and to observe how awful their work actually was. I would then ask them to rate it on a scale of 1 to 10.
The results were surprising. What I found was that no matter how much a student had been dreading doing work, their rating was never higher than a 2 or 3. Realizing this for themselves helped students see that the actual experience of work was not as bad as their imagined version of it.
I once employed this technique with a junior girl who came into my office looking absolutely deflated. She sat there, slumped in her chair. “I don’t want to do any work today,” she said. “I have no motivation whatsoever.”
So I challenged her to try my experiment, to see how awful her work really was. She barely had enough energy to do even this, but fortunately she was willing to try.
Sure enough, once she started working, she quickly found that the reality of her experience was nowhere near as bad as she had imagined. In fact, she got so involved in her work that she never even bothered to rate her experience and instead just kept on working for two hours straight. The session turned into her most productive ever.
And when her time was up, not only was she relieved to have gotten all that work done - work that had been hanging over her head for days - but she was extremely thankful too. She had been stuck and didn’t see a way out. She hadn’t been resisting her work intentionally, she just didn’t know how to get herself going.
* * *
While this approach served my students well, I realized I could take it one step further while watching a video by Rick Hanson, author of Buddha’s Brain and Hardwiring Happiness, which combine traditional Buddhist insight with modern neuroscience. In the video, Hanson discusses two kinds of happiness, one called hedonia and the other eudaimonia.
This distinction is extremely useful in distinguishing between experiences that are merely enjoyable (hedonia) and those that are meaningful in a deeper sense (eudaimonia). Both aspects of happiness are valid, but they are achieved in different ways and satisfy different needs. All too often, teens try to maximize their hedonia while unknowingly minimizing activities that lead to eudaimonia.
* * *
Which brings me back to the freshman boy I mentioned at the start of this piece, the one who was falling further and further behind in school and didn’t know what to do about it.
What I explained to him was this: almost everyone has it backwards when it comes to work. I told him that most teens think, as I did when I was in high school, that work is something to be avoided, and the real goal in life is to have fun and hang out with friends. I pointed out that engaging fully in our work brings us another, often deeper, sense of happiness.
To my surprise, this resonated with him immediately. He even gave me an example of this at play in his own life. He happened to be a competitive boxer, which involved a ton of hard work. He explained that there were times that he only reluctantly went to practice, but that once he was there he felt great and was always glad he had gone. The key was recognizing that it was not in spite of the hard work that he enjoyed himself, but because of it.
I then pointed out that school was no different. That the act of working hard would be rewarding in a similar way -- if he could just allow himself to fully engage in it.
Instead of telling him to work harder, I helped him see for himself that hard work is inherently meaningful and rewarding. And sure enough, as I mentioned before, when he returned the following week he got right down to work and stayed focused for the entire session.
* * *
Helping others shift their attitude is not always easy. It requires nuance and skill. All too often, attitude is confused with how we feel about a situation, or reduced to putting a “positive spin” on something. But changing our attitude involves more than simply changing how we feel. Rather, it has to do with deepening our understanding of, and, ultimately, our relationship to a situation. And on the deepest level, it means choosing to see ourselves not as victims of circumstance, but as empowered individuals who can meaningfully shape our own lives.
In any difficult situation, we can choose to hold onto our frustrations and limitations or we can accept things as they are and marshal our energies toward finding a solution. When we do this, we do end up both feeling better and speaking more positively about whatever challenge we’re facing. But these changes are the results of a deeper shift in attitude. Helping others in this way empowers them to step into better versions of themselves. And that's what education is really about.
There is a profound misunderstanding in the US today about how to effectively educate youth, one that stems from a cultural blind spot that is as devastating as it is pervasive. This blind spot has plagued the American educational system for decades and has had a hand in just about every major challenge we have faced in trying to educate our youth. And the blind spot is this: we as a society have failed to grasp the simple but important truth that education is a fundamentally relational endeavor.
Just as the classroom is the physical context within which learning typically takes place, the teacher-student relationship is the psychological context within which students learn. Just as a well-lit, ergonomically appropriate, technologically sophisticated classroom will support learning, a strong, healthy teacher-student relationship will boost and deepen learning. And, unfortunately, just as a chaotic or decrepit physical space will interfere with a child's ability to learn, so too will a bereft teacher-student relationship negatively impact learning.
Carl Rogers, the godfather of humanistic psychology, was one of the first to articulate the importance of relationships in supporting personal growth. He wrote:
Rogers called this kind of relationship a "helping relationship" and it ended up forming the basis for much of modern talk therapy. Instead of sitting behind a couch with a clipboard trying to objectively analyze one's patient, psychologists began relating to their clients as people, which turned out to be far more effective.
But this insight into the primacy of relationships, as impactful as it was within the therapeutic realm, actually transcended the field of psychotherapy. Part of Rogers' brilliance was that he recognized this himself, all the way back in 1954. He continues:
Over half a century later we have yet to absorb the significance of Rogers' work. In my own work with youth the relational approach has proved over and over again to be incredibly effective, which has only served to heighten my awareness of the disastrous results that inevitably follow when educators neglect the teacher-student relationship.
There seem to be two primary reasons people struggle to see the importance of relationships in education. The first is that relationships are abstract. They are not objects that you can pick up, examine, dissect. Rather, relationships are the interplay between objects. Because of this, when people try to figure out how to improve teaching they typically either ask what the teacher is doing wrong or what the student is. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear parents and students complain about teachers when a student is struggling in school. But when I go and talk with teachers, they are just as likely to complain about the students and parents.
Take, for example, this recent piece published in the Parenting section of the Washington Post, whose author Laura Hanby Hudgens asks in the title: Do teachers care more about schoolwork than your kids do? After listing off a number of common problems in education, including “inadequate and unequal funding, a lack of resources, underpaid and overworked teachers, over-testing, poverty and heavy-handed legislation” Hudgens states: “But there is another problem, one that is plaguing many of America’s classrooms and jeopardizing the future of our children, yet it is rarely addressed — at least not as it should be. That problem is apathy. In classrooms all over the country, the teacher cares more about her students’ grades, learning and futures than they do.”
Here you can see that Hudgens locates the problem within the child and the problem is that they are apathetic. To be fair, she is pushing back against a growing number of people who see teachers as the problem. She writes:
This is clearly problematic too. And it leads, as Hudgens goes on to explain, to teacher burnout. The problem is that because of this cultural blind spot, nobody thinks to look for the solution in the relationship between the teacher and the student. Instead, two camps form, each pointing the finger at the other one.
According to developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld, a similar dynamic often arises in how we think about parenting difficulties. Neufeld writes, “Many experts assume … if parenting is not going well, it is because parents are not doing things rights.” Parents then internalize this perspective themselves. Neufeld explains:
Not everyone subscribes to this viewpoint, as Neufeld is quick to explain:
Neufeld has begun to do for parenting what Rogers did for the field of psychotherapy. Neufeld sums up his view as follows: “Parenthood is above all a relationship, not a skill to be acquired.”
The other reason it has been so hard for us as a society to understand this relational perspective is that we have (largely unconsciously) already subscribed to a different, competing model, one that is very compelling but ultimately limited. This model is most clearly articulated in the field of economics and can be boiled down to the notion that the way to influence people’s behavior is through incentives and disincentives, more commonly known as punishments and rewards. This model is a form of Behaviorism, which intentionally does not try to figure out what is going on inside of other people, since that is ultimately futile anyway, and instead looks only at behaviors. There is an elegance to this, a simplicity. No more psychoanalyzing. Disregard what people tell you motivates them. If you incentivize something and it works, nothing else really matters.
The problem is that while this model may be good for understanding how to influence large groups of people, it is not ideal for optimal human development. While using punishments and rewards in raising a child is a practical tool to use in some situations, this Behaviorist model is inadequate for understanding how to help children mature into self-responsible individuals.
All too often, I see parents struggling with their teenage children because of this exact dynamic: As the teen starts to rebel against the old system of punishments and rewards (that may have worked fine up to that point), the parent sees no other option but to double down on the Behaviorist strategy. Rather than improving the situation, this just fuels a growing power struggle between the parent and the teen, one that is ultimately frustrating for both parties.
But what is the alternative? In short, rather than focusing on behavior first we can instead focus on the quality of our relationship with the child or student we are working to support. Part of the problem with the Behaviorist approach is that even when we are rewarding a child for good behavior, it is still fundamentally a relationship of control. Our main focus becomes about getting that person to do something. Even when we are clear that we are doing this is for their own good, say offering a reward for good grades, it is still about modifying (or reinforcing) behavior.
Which brings us back to Rogers. In his work, Rogers didn’t just claim that relationships matter. He articulated exactly what a good relationship looks like and came up with three basic ideas. In Rogers’ own words:
All three of these insights are important, but let’s take the first one for a moment. This idea is sometimes summed up as authenticity. To show up in a relationship authentically takes some amount of courage, even when (or perhaps especially when) this relationship is with a teenager. In fact, teens are more sensitized to realness than most adults and can smell a phony from a mile away (see Catcher in the Rye). So this first principle is doubly important when working with teens. Compared to forming a genuine relationship with a teen, focusing on punishing and rewarding behavior is far safer. It’s more like the psychologists of old sitting behind the couch, removed, aloof, analyzing the patient. That is still a relationship. Just not a very connected one.
* * *
A student comes in to see me who has been struggling mightily in math. As a tutor, my job is, ostensibly, to simply help her understand the math and get better grades. But when this student arrives at my office it is clear she is completely shut down to the learning process. Her posture is slumped, her homework crumpled in her bag. When I ask her what she's been struggling with she says, matter-of-factly, “Pretty much everything. I really hate math."
How one approaches a situation like this will depends on how one views it. If I stay focused on the behavior, I might try to explain why it will be to her benefit to do the math while she has my help. It will be harder if she waits. She doesn’t want a bad grade, does she?
But this approach would not signal to the student any sense of caring about her wellbeing. Rather, it would say to her that what I care about is doing my job. It’s about getting the math done. It’s about turning her into a good student.
In this actual example, what I did was set the math aside and started asking this student about school and about her interests. I began to learn what she did care about rather than try to convince her to face something she clearly did not care about. This was not easy because we did not end up getting any math done that first session. Nor during the second. Nor during the third. But I could see that progress was being made. And then, sure enough, on that fourth session she came in, pulled out her math, and we got to work.
* * *
Neufeld calls the force that binds children to adults “attachment.” In the US, talk of attachment or of Attachment Theory tends to conjure up images of infants nursing or of grown children co-sleeping in their parents’ beds. But for Neufeld, attachment is something much more fundamental. He writes:
Because of the fundamental nature of attachment needs, when these needs go unmet in children they start to act out. After all, on a base level any attention is better than no attention. In such cases, the solution is not to punish this negative behavior in hopes of stopping it, but rather to figure out how to help that child get his or her attachment needs met. Once this occurs, the problem behavior will correct itself.
* * *
Now that we have discussed the importance of relationships in raising and teaching youth, let’s look back at the “apathy problem” mentioned above and see why it is so problematic when this understanding is not present.
Apathy in students is a real problem, one I encounter often. The difference lies in the story I use to explain it. Hudgens sees apathy as the product of a shift towards a consumer mentality on the part of ungrateful students. She writes, “Many students don’t see education as a privilege. They see it as a product. And if they don’t like the salesperson, if they aren’t impressed with how it’s packaged, they aren’t buying.”
Hudgens is not alone in this view of students. I have myself heard teachers complain about how “entitled” kids are these days. And it sounds like a compelling story, even to me. The odd thing is that in all my years of working with students, only a small handful of students have ever displayed overt entitled attitudes. A vast majority of the kids I have worked with have been polite, respectful, and grateful for my help.
When I see a student displaying apathy, I don’t see an entitled child who doesn’t care. I see a discouraged student who is afraid to care because it would be too vulnerable to do so, too big of risk. This difference in interpretation leads to a very different kind of intervention. Instead of chiding the student to care more, I work to help the student see a path to success. I instill that student with confidence. And then, when they experience a renewed sense of hope, they can once again risk caring, and may develop self-motivation, which is far more powerful than a carrot on a stick.
Hudgens states that “teachers and parents need practical strategies for encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning.” But her strategies for combating apathy are all behavioral: “Sit in the front. Take notes. Ask questions. Be organized. Do all the work.”
If a student is disorganized, simply telling them to “be organized” is not going to solve the problem. If a student is feeling completely discouraged and struggling to understand the material, telling them to “do all the work” is not going to help. You might as well just say, “Stop being so apathetic.” The reality is, kids don’t mean to become apathetic in the first place. And so they likewise don’t know how to stop being apathetic, even if they want to. Rather, they need our guidance for this. Just like kids need to learn how to multiply and divide, they also need to learn how to care about school in a healthy way. Just like young children learn to talk by listening to the adults around them and then copying what they hear, older children learn how to relate to life by watching how the adults around them do so. And the most visible example of this is how the adult relates to that very child.
The significance of teacher-student relationships in education has been overlooked for far too long. Perhaps it is time to change that.