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.
Just as the classroom is the physical context within which learning typically takes place, it turns out that the teacher-student relationship is the psychological context within which students learn. Just as a well-lit, ergonomically appropriate, technologically up to date classroom will increase learning, a strong, healthy teacher-student relationship will similarly boost and deepen learning. And unfortunately, just as a chaotic, run down 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' breakthrough was to recognize that facilitating learning and personal growth is not about offering advice. It is about entering into a particular kind of relationship, which he called "helping relationships." This insight led to a revolution in how psychotherapy was conducted. Instead of sitting behind a couch with a clipboard trying to analyze one's patient, psychologists began relating to their clients, person to person.
This insight into the primacy of relationships, as impactful as it was within the therapeutic community, transcends the field of psychotherapy. In fact, Rogers recognized this himself:
Over half a century later, we have yet to fully absorb the significance of Rogers' insight. In my own work with youth the relational approach has proved time and time again to be incredibly effective, which has only served to heighten my awareness of the ineffectiveness that inevitably follows when educators fail to nurture the teacher-student relationship.
There seem to be two primary reasons people struggle to grasp the importance of relationships in an educational context. 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. When people try to figure out how to improve teaching they typically either focus on what the teacher is doing wrong or what the student is. Thus, it is not uncommon to hear parents or students complain about teachers while the teachers are simultaneously complaining about the students or parents.
This either/or mindset is common. Take, for example, the following article recently 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 legitimate problems occurring within education today, 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.”
Hudgens is not necessarily wrong. When kids are apathetic, it negatively impacts learning. But this framing doesn't ask why the kids are apathetic. It simply locates that apathy within them. What if that apathy is a reaction to the context they are in?
To be fair, Hudgens is pushing back against a growing number of people who, rather than blaming children, blame teachers. She writes:
It is problematic to expect teachers to continually make learning more fun and exciting. Doing so inevitably leads to teacher burnout.
Because most of us fail to recognize the importance of the relational nature of learning, two camps tend to form, each pointing the finger at the other.
According to developmental psychologist Gordon Neufeld, who has built significantly upon Rogers' humanistic theories, a similar issue commonly 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.” What is needed, then, is the right method or technique. He continues:
Neufeld here is pointing to the same insight we say articulated by Rogers above. The relationship creates the context for the behavior of the child, not the methods employed by the parents or the character of the child. As Neufeld is quick to explain:
But Neufeld sums up his view as follows: “Parenthood is above all a relationship, not a skill to be acquired.”
The second reason we often overlook the relational perspective is that we already subscribe to a different, competing model of the world that is more mechanical. This model is states that the way to influence people’s behavior is through offering incentives and disincentives, punishments and rewards. This is the territory of Behaviorism, which intentionally does not try to figure out what is going on inside of people, since according to that view, this is ultimately futile. Instead, Behaviorism invites to to only look at observable behaviors and to figure out what contingencies lead to the desired outcomes.
There is an elegance to this, a simplicity. No more psychoanalyzing. No more messy interpretations. However, while this model may be good for influencing (aka controlling) people, the approach it leads to simply does not support healthy child development. While using punishments and rewards when raising children is at times practical, the Behaviorist approach leads to an objectification of the role of parent. We end up managing teen behavior rather than tending to the quality of our relationships with our children.
It tends to look like this: as the teen starts to push back against the strategy of punishments and rewards, the parent sees no other option but to double down on their behavior management strategy. Rather than improving the situation, this just fuels a growing power struggle between the parent and the teen, one that puts a strain on both parties and gets in the way of what the teen needs most, which is a deeper connection with the parent.
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 is on getting that person to do something. Even when we are clear that we are doing this for their own good, say offering a reward for good grades, it is still about modifying behavior, not about relating.
Which brings us back to Rogers. In his work, Rogers didn’t just state that relationships are important for personal growth. He also began to articulate what effective "helping relationships" look like, ultimately settling upon three core principles that lead to positive learning and growth in others:
All three of these insights are important, but let’s take the first one for a moment. This idea is sometimes summed up being authentic. 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 sensitive to realness than most adults and can smell a "phony" from a mile away (see Catcher in the Rye). So this first principle is particularly important when working with, or raising, teens.
* * *
One time, a student came in to see me who had been struggling in math. As a tutor, my job was, ostensibly, to help her understand the math and thereby get better grades. But when this student arrived at my office it was clear she was completely shut down to the learning process. Her posture was slumped, her homework crumpled in her bag, her affect flat. When I ask her what she had been struggling with she said, matter-of-factly, “Pretty much everything. I really hate math."
In situations like this, it is tempting to try to cheer the person up. We want them to feel better. We want them to look on the bright side. We hope that a more optimistic take on life will lead to action. The problem with this approach is that it is ultimately about trying to get the student to act, which is to say it is still focused on behavior. But in doing so, I would not be signaling to the student my concern for her, as a person, which is the relational thing to do. I would be signaling that my concern is ultimately with getting her to produce certain academic results.
In this case, what I actually did was set the math aside and started getting to know her. I started learning about her and what was important to her. We did not end up doing any math that first session. Nor during the second. Nor during the third! And then, just as I was starting to doubt the relational approach myself, the next time she came in - as if it was the most natural thing in the world for her to do - she pulled out her math and we got to work.
I am convinced that if I had tried to speed things along, if I had tried to get this student to start on the math before she was really ready, it would have backfired. For whatever reason, she simply was not open to it. By letting the process unfold as I did, I signaled to this student that my allegiance was to her, not to achieving a particular result, nor to my role as tutor. In most cases, it does not take three full sessions to prove where my commitment lies. In fact, it had never taken that long before, nor has it since. But the underlying principle is the same. Once this student realized that I was not going to coerce her, or even try to convince her, to do her work her perspective shifted. Allowing her to open up at her own pace helped build enough trust for her feel ready to finally ask for help.
Let’s return, for a moment, at the “apathy problem” mentioned above. Apathy in students is a real phenomenon, one I encounter often enough. But I view it differently than Hudgens. She sees it as a problem with the mentality of 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.” In other words, apathy is the result of entitled attitudes on the part of students.
Hudgens is not alone in her view. I have heard, myself, teachers complain about how “entitled” students are these days. But I work with many of the same students they do and, oddly, an majority of them have been respectful and kind, and have expressed gratitude for the help they've received. It is possible that I only the "good" kids are coming through my doors, but I think a different explanation is far more likely. Kids respond to their environments, as we all do.
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. This difference in interpretation leads to a very different kind of intervention. Instead of trying to convince the student to care more, I work to help the student see a path to success. I work to empower that student. And then, when they experience a renewed sense of confidence, they can once again risk caring.
Hudgens states that “teachers and parents need practical strategies for encouraging students to take responsibility for their own learning.” But her recommendations for overcoming apathy are circular: “Sit in the front. Take notes. Ask questions. Be organized. Do all the work.” These are the actions of an already motivated student, not what one should do to generate motivation. Generating motivation is not about forcing oneself to act like a motivated student, but to shift one's relationship to school.
The reality is, kids don’t mean to become apathetic so they likewise don’t know how to stop being apathetic, even when they want to. They need us in order to grow and change. In the same way kids need teachers to learn how to multiply and divide, they also need to be taught how to care about school. In the same way young children need us to learn how to walk and talk, older children need us to learn how to apply themselves.
Children of all ages pattern themselves after the people to whom they are most attached. This is why attending to the quality of our relationships matters so much. Whether at home or in the classroom, to help children reach their full potential we can't only focus on correcting their behavior, we have to be willing to enter into authentic, supportive relationships with them. It's not always easy, but in my experience it is both extremely rewarding and effective.