What the New SAT Writing and Language Test Covers

By Geraldine Woods, Ron Woldoff

The new SAT Writing and Language section now contains less actual writing: one optional 50-minute essay analyzing the writing style of a passage you’ve never seen before plus 35 minutes’ worth of multiple-choice questions.

Why so little writing? As all teachers who sit with four-foot-high piles of essays on their laps know, it takes a long time to read student prose. The SAT test-makers must pay people to read and score essays — a much more expensive and time-consuming proposition than running a bubble sheet through a scanner. Here are the details.

How the essay works

The prompt, or question, never changes, but the passage does. You have to figure out the author’s point of view, what he or she is arguing for or against. Then you must pick apart the passage, discussing how the author attempts to persuade the reader to accept this point of view. Finally, you get 50 minutes to write your own essay, describing what you’ve discovered. Your own ideas on the subject, by the way, are irrelevant (beside the point). The College Board doesn’t care what you think; graders simply want to know whether you can identify the relationship between style and content in someone else’s work.

Many standardized tests may now be taken on a computer. The College Board has begun to move toward a computer-based SAT, too, at the speed of an elderly turtle. As of this writing, the computer-based SAT will be available at only a few sites. The College Board promises that at some point it will be everywhere. When? Don’t hold your breath! No date has been given, and the College Board has never been famous for its speed in technical innovation. Currently, only those who have been certified as dysgraphic (having a learning disability that affects handwriting) may type the essay. For everyone else, handwriting is your only option. Start practicing your penmanship.

How the multiple-choice questions work

You get four passages, each from 400 to 450 words long, accompanied by 11 questions per passage. The passages represent fairly good student writing, but they all have room for improvement in grammar, punctuation, organization, logic, and style. The multiple-choice questions address those areas.

In terms of content, you see one passage in each of these areas: careers, history/social studies, humanities, and science. One or two passages will make an argument for a particular idea, one or two may be informative or explanatory, and one will be a narrative.

At least one passage (and probably more) includes a graphic element — a chart, table, diagram or graph relating to the subject matter. One question checks that the passage accurately represents the information in the graphic element. The questions may focus on a single word (to check your vocabulary-in-context skill) or on the passage as a whole (to determine your ability to organize information).

Take a look at this example, which, on the real exam, would be part of a longer passage:

Having been turned down by 15 major league baseball teams, Milton changed to basketball, and he succeeded in his goal where he was aiming to be a professional athlete.

  1. Which answer best changes the underlined portion of the sentence?

    (A) NO CHANGE

    (B) in that he reached his goal of aiming to be a professional athlete

    (C) where he became a professional athlete

    (D) in his goal of becoming a professional athlete

The answer is Choice (D), because that version conveys the information smoothly and correctly. Did you notice that Choice (A) keeps the wording of the original passage? That’s the design in most multiple-choice Writing and Language questions.