Saturday, June 7, 2014

The New SAT, Homeschooling, & Classical Conversations


On Friday morning, I had an opportunity to sit in on a webinar lead by David Coleman, the president of the College Board, in which he explained many of the changes behind the new SAT and some of the rationale behind them. I was blessed to be able to set aside the time to attend (thank you, boys!) and grateful to HSLDA and Mark Rodgers from The Clapham Group, who arranged the conference call. It was fascinating, and I hope to share some of my notes and thoughts with you.

I admit – I approached this opportunity to listen to Mr. Coleman with more than a healthy dose of skepticism.  After all, Mr. Coleman was instrumental in the development of the language arts portion of the Common Core, which is something that I’m not in favor of. Common Core seems to treat students as robots, and many examples of work and assignments that have been aligned with Common Core standards seems to have an ulterior motive – anti-American, anti-capitalist, anti-Judeo-Christian ethics.    And, let’s not get started on my thoughts about the role of the federal government in a realm that is supposed to be an issue at the state and local level.  

Like education blogger Diane Ravitch, I feel a little woozy after hearing Mr. Coleman’s opening remarks.  He is a fast talker!  At first I thought he was trying to be efficient as the webinar was only one hour (including Q&A time), but speaking at a fast rate is apparently just a part of Mr. Coleman. One of the first things Mr. Coleman did was to apologize for not reaching out into the home education and faith-based community (including private schools) to discuss education, changes and such.  He admitted to getting off on the wrong foot. Now, to be honest, I’m not sure if he was speaking as a former Common Core architect or as director of The College Board.  In either role, I’ll accept his apology. He hinted that the changes to the SAT would be changes that a good many homeschoolers would embrace because we value the same skills that he does – careful reading, evidenced-based writing, and solid mathematical skills.  He spoke about wanting to engage in the classical conversations about important ideas of freedom and liberty.  I admit I liked what he was saying, but I’m still viewing what he said with some hesitancy. 

Changes to the SAT- In sum, careful reading, mastery of mathematic concepts, and clear writing will be “celebrated” (as Mr. Coleman describes) on the new SAT, expected to launch in the Spring 2016. 

I’m writing from my notes, but I’ve gone ahead and cross referenced with information that is viewable at, a website that openly shares information about the upcoming changes to the CollegeBoard’s assessments.  Mr. Coleman highly recommended parents research the changes using this site, saying they are trying to be transparent and open about everything so that more and more students – regardless of background and economics – will have an opportunity to seek out higher education without the SAT being a barrier.

You can find draft and sample questions at

1. The written essay will be optional.  For the past many years, the SAT has included a mandatory 25-minute essay.  This redesign will have an optional 50-minute essay.  The content of the essay, according to Mr. Coleman, will change significantly.  Instead of asking a student’s opinion about a source text or quote, students will be asked to read and analyze a source.  One example Mr. Coleman provided would be that students would be asked to thoughtfully examine how the writer supports his claim, requiring the student to examine the reasoning (logic, perhaps), vocabulary and writing techniques and evidence to make his/her claim.  Students will be explicitly told not to express their opinion/ agreement/ disagreement with the source’s writer.  Students should no longer feel conflicted about whether they are providing a politically correct/ incorrect opinion about the essay prompt (and being assessed more on their opinion than their writing) but will be evaluated on their ability to examine a piece of writing and communicate effectively about it. 

2. The math subtests will examine a students mastery of a smaller core of basic information (the “fine things” as Mr. Coleman described) that is important for college and STEM fields. Calculators will be less used on the subtests than previously.  The CollegeBoard will be partnering with Kahn Academy to provide a wealth of testing prep so that students will have a more equal access to good, solid training.  The industry that has developed to help students prepare for the SAT “is not our fault,” said Mr. Coleman, “but it is our problem.” Obviously, those families who invest in significant SAT prep training are more likely going to have students who fare better on the test.  By providing more training free across the board (through Kahn Academy and such), Mr. Coleman is hoping a wider swath high school students will take the test and pursue high education, breaking down economic barriers than have been built up over the decades.Thus, the strategic partnership with Kahn Academy.  

Back to math.  The areas that will be covered include:

A. Problem Solving and Data Analysis – The website says that “this is about being quantitatively literate”, and includes using and understanding percentages,ratio, proportions, fractions, applying this to situations and various fields of study.

B. Heart of algebra linear equations and systems and students will need to demonstrate a fluency and mastery of these concepts.

C. Passport to Advanced Math – these are the advanced equations and manipulations that are required for students who aim to enter the STEM fields. 

3.  Evidence-Based Reading and Writing Subtests:  Mr. Coleman promises that at least one “founding document” or a document that continued the discussion around the world regarding freedom, liberty and the “nature of civic life” would be on each test. This could include writing from additional American thinkers and leaders or others:  Edmond Burke, Mary Wollstonecraft, Gandhi.  Students will be asked to read the passage and then answer questions about its content and make reasonable inferences from it.  (See sample)

I believe that Mr. Coleman is hoping to garner a lot of support from the homeschooling community – particularly those like me who are extremely patriotic and conservative in our view of our founding documents – that this addition to the test will be well received. 

Also in this section is the much talked about changes to vocabulary.  Gone are obtuse words.  Instead, students will be asked to think deep and wide about the many uses words have within the context of passages.  Mr. Coleman used the example of six uses of the word ‘dedicate’ in the Gettysburg Address.  Students may be asked to think about how the word is used and how the meaning evolves through Mr. Lincoln’s speech.

Additional bullet points from the Q and A section of the webinar:

  • While the essay component may be optional, students will want to consider the testing and admission requirements for the colleges they plan to apply to and verify if the essay subtest is necessary for the institution.
  • The new SAT is not about a specific body of knowledge (the Common Core) but about skills to interpret and engage in learning.  But, as much as Mr. Coleman assured us that the SAT would still have changed even without the Common Core, I’m a little more doubtful.  Other sites have reported that the SAT is changing because of Common Core (here and here).
  • The PSAT will reflect the changes in the SAT.  Fall 2015 will be the new PSAT.
  • The website I mentioned earlier – – will have sample questions and tests a year or two in advance of the actual test.  Again, Kahn Academy is available for all, and it will have more specific information as the new format is released for testing.
  • CollegeBoard is looking at alternative ways of waiving fees for those with low incomes and who are not involved with a school (that is, homeschoolers), who has historically been the vehicle for granting fee waivers.

SAT time frames @ reapingaharvest


Changes to the SAT & Homeschooling & Classical Conversations:

“The redesigned SAT is not about a body of knowledge. It will honor things valued in the homeschool community.”  David Coleman

First of all, I’m hopeful that Mr. Coleman is honest and forthright about his claims with regard to the new SAT and its independence from Common Core.  Assuming this, I think many home educators should breathe a sigh of relief about changes to the SAT. If you are focused on establishing a good foundation for your students in math, reading and writing, then your student should be well-prepared for the SAT.   

Most importantly, I think that those of us who engage in the Challenge level program through Classical Conversations should feel very comfortable that the timeless skills our students are learning and practicing throughout the program will serve them well on this new SAT version. 

As a Challenge II director/ tutor, I cannot even begin to count the number of times I said to my student, “How can you back up your claim/ thesis/ opinion?” Whether in a biology lab drawing conclusions, explaining why an algebraic problem is solved a particular way, or in defending a debate resolution, students in Challenge are constantly asked to analyze arguments and provide support.  In both Challenge B and II (as well as in Challenge III) students study logic in order to discern clear reasoning.  The Socratic discussions and essays utilizing the Five Common Topics of invention will help students think clearly contextually.  They will discuss relationships and ideas. I think our math seminars – where we are talking about math, math laws and properties, thinking about why we do what we do and learning to love math as an example of God’s creativity and order – will serve students well on the SAT.


I’m not sure how the SAT will actually play out in real life – change is always hard and I’m still skeptical– but I feel comfortable that the direction we are on as a family is just where we ought to be. Ben will likely be in the first cohort of students using the new testing protocol; just another “guinea pig” moment in his life as a first born.  I will definitely be reading more about the test on the website and we will continue on with our mastery-based math program.  If my sons do not see that God is leading them towards college, I think they will have had the opportunity to participate in an incredible secondary education where God’s truth, beauty and goodness are celebrated and sought after, and I will continue to pray that they will seek God wherever He leads.

Did any of you attend?  What were your thoughts?

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