While preparing for the SAT, it’s important to focus on essential skills: the writing, reading, and math skills that will serve you well in college and beyond. But it’s also useful to keep in mind that the SAT is not really a test of your intelligence. It’s not an IQ test. It’s definitely not an evaluation of your basic worth, despite how the test might make you feel. Rather, it’s useful to keep in mind that, while the SAT tests on many valuable things, it tests, most of all, on how good you are at taking the SAT.
One of the goals of the new SAT (administered for the first time in March 2016) is to align the test with what students learn in school. In years prior, students often complained that there was a significant gap between what they covered in school and what the SAT tested. With the new test, the College Board claims, “The same habits and choices that lead to success in school will help you get ready for the SAT.” Good at school? You’ll ace the SAT.
This is partly true. Compared to the last version of the SAT, the new test is much less focused on arcane vocabulary and archaic reading passages. The new test focuses much more on essential skills, such as evaluating words in context, using and evaluating evidence, problem solving, and data analysis.
But the College Board’s claim that the new SAT tests only on “what you learn in high school” and “what you need to succeed in college” is a bit overstated.
Take, for instance, question number one in the Writing and Language Test (Section 2) of practice test 6 from the College Board web site:
The answer is D. Why not A? Choice A creates two independent clauses (“scientists. . . 227” and “this. . . Area.”) Two independent clauses cannot be separated by a comma. Choice A creates a comma splice, a kind of run-on sentence. Choice B has the opposite problem. “Which” is a relative pronoun, which (get it?) turns the second clause into a dependent clause. A dependent clause cannot stand alone as a complete sentence, so separating the first clause from the second with a period turns the second clause into a fragment. Choice C is also a fragment—the “sentence” after the period lacks a verb. That leaves us with choice D, which creates a modifier after the comma. The pronoun “one” refers to “Lake 227.”
Independent clauses, dependent clauses, comma splices, run-on sentences, relative pronouns, and modifiers: this question does test an essential skill—if you’re interested in becoming a professional writer, editor, or teacher.
Does it test “What you need to succeed in college”? I’m not so sure. No matter which answer you choose, the meaning of this sentence (or pair of sentences) remains clear. Placing a comma or period between these two clauses, using a “which,” or “this,” or “one”—these choices do not change the meaning of the passage. If you were to write a run-on sentence like choice A or a fragment like choices B or C in a college essay, you would probably suffer little more than a note in the margins from your professor. Even most writing and English professors are lenient when it comes to minor grammatical errors. It doesn’t seem to me that your success or failure on a question like this one has much to do with your future success or failure as a college student.
The even more indefensible claim with a question like this one is that it tests “what you learn in high school.”
The fact is, most high school students in the U.S. do not study grammar explicitly. That’s probably a good thing, though more focus on sentence-level issues within writing and reading courses would surely benefit many students.
The Common Core English Language Arts standards focus on bigger, more essential skills than grammar: argumentation, critical thinking, problem solving, and textual analysis. In fact, nowhere in the Common Core’s explanation of ELA standards does the word “grammar” even appear.
To the College Board’s credit, the SAT tests on these essential skills, too. For this reason, it’s a pretty good standardized test.
But like the Common Core ELA standards, the College Board’s description of the Writing and Language Test makes no mention of “grammar” itself. Instead, the College Board explains, “It’s About the Everyday”:
When you take the Writing and Language Test, you’ll do three things that people do all the time when they write and edit:
2. Find mistakes and weaknesses.
3. Fix them.
The good news: You do these things every time you proofread your own schoolwork or workshop essays with a friend.
It’s the practical skills you use to spot and correct problems — the stuff you’ve been learning in high school and the stuff you’ll need to succeed in college — that the test measures.
Sounds easy, right?
Despite the College Board’s description, the Writing and Language Test remains disproportionately focused on grammar, a subject that most high school students have not had the chance to master.
Because the SAT continues to test on issues not sufficiently covered in high school, it is essential that students preparing for the SAT approach the test for what it is: a test not of their intelligence or of what they’ve learned in high school, but of a collection of certain kinds of questions that, for better or worse, serve as a gatekeeper standing between students and their college goals.
Preparing for SAT grammar questions requires that students begin to categorize the types of grammatical issues that the SAT tests on: linking and separating clauses, subject-verb agreement, pronoun ambiguity, and more. For students to feel empowered with the Writing and Language Test, it’s important to recognize that the SAT tests only on certain types of grammar questions. You don’t need to be a copy editor for the New York Times to ace the Writing and Language Test, but you do need to get a handle on about a dozen grammatical principles, including parallelism, modifiers, and verb tense.
Only by focusing on often foreign grammatical principles—rather than broad, supposedly familiar concepts like “Expression of Ideas” and “Standard English Conventions”—can students begin to tackle and master the difficulties presented by the SAT.
Stephen P. is a writer and teacher based in Los Angeles. He has taught literature and writing courses at several universities and has taught writing and critical reading at Elite Educational Institute since 2010.