Deep Dive Into the Redesigned SAT: Reading Section

Dr. Ashleigh D. Barnes, University Select LLC

The new SAT 1600 has not only students, but also parents and educators anxious. Prepping for standardized testing is grounded in degrees of predictability. In other words, test prep is all about knowing what to expect on test day. A new test means a lesser degree of predictability, and therefore greater difficulty in preparation. How do students prep for and educators best teach to a test that will debut in March 2016?

The short answer is that there is more predictability than the label “new” would suggest. As Callie Batts-Maddox has pointed out, the SAT has seen numerous revisions, and both students and educators were able to adapt. This article compares the old SAT 2400 Critical Reading section and the current ACT Reading section to the new SAT 1600 Reading section, outlined in four sample tests recently released by the College Board.

This article draws on University Select’s categorization and statistical analysis of the question types in publicly available SAT 2400, ACT, and SAT 1600 Reading Sections. University Select’s analysis differs significantly from the description of the Reading section offered by the College Board, the author of the test. Our goal is to see into the test—beyond the touted structural changes—to get a feel for how the passages, questions, and the test-taking experience have been reconfigured. We see several significant changes, outlined in greater depth in Sections I & II:

  1. An Evolving Vocabulary Mandate: No sentence completion questions – but more vocabulary in context questions.
  2. Fewer Line Reference Questions: Where all detail questions have line references on the SAT 2400, 50% of the SAT 1600 detail questions have no line reference.
  3. Paired Questions: 50% of detail questions are followed by a question that asks students to pinpoint the best textual evidence for their detail question answer.
  4. Data Interpretation Questions: Almost 6 (11%) questions per test relate to reading and interpreting a graphic in conjunction with text from a passage.

Section II offers a primer on what these changes mean for test-taking strategy.


The structural changes to the SAT 1600 Reading Section are best explained in table form: 

Reading Chart.jpg

Unlike the Writing section, the structural changes to the SAT 1600 Reading section are limited. The biggest changes are that the SAT 1600 allows significantly more time per question as compared to the both the SAT 2400 and the ACT and offers more predictability as to the topics of passages, more similar to the ACT’s Reading section. In the recently issued Official SAT Study Guide for the SAT 1600, the College Board depicts the Reading Section as undergoing fundamental revision. In truth, it looks more like rebranding. While there undeniably has been change, particularly in the way vocabulary is tested, the raw material of the Reading section remains the same: parallel and long passages, except now with slightly more predictability as to subject matter.


In rebranding the Reading section, the College Board highlights the importance of textual evidence, reorganizing its analysis into three (relatively unhelpful) big-tent categories of questions: Rhetoric, Information & Ideas, and Synthesis questions. The truth is, however, not much has changed in terms of the Reading section’s passage content, process of reasoning, and question categories. The bigger—and less heralded—challenge for test-takers encountering the New SAT Reading Sections stems from changes to the way questions are asked, the focus of University Select’s analysis.  

Overall, two types of questions remain largely the same – in substance as well as the frequency with which they appear on the SAT 1600 as compared to SAT 2400. Yet, the SAT 1600 includes major substantive changes to four question types. As this article explains, these changes to the composition of questions and question sets are likely to change the strategy with which students approach the Reading section. However, as each of the following paragraphs indicate, many of the changes to question form borrow from the ACT and/or make explicit what was already an implicit part of success on the SAT 2400 Critical Reading Test.

About the Same: Parallel Passages

The SAT 2400’s Reading section includes approximately 12% parallel passages questions, or questions that test an understanding of the relationship between two passages. The SAT 1600 includes 10.6% parallel passages questions. The frequency of parallel passages remains fairly consistent on the both SATs. While the ACT rarely tests the relationship between two passages, it is worth noting, however, that a parallel passage appeared on the June 2015 test, the September 2015 test, and the model test for 2015-2016 ACT. We may be seeing a trend in which the ACT includes a parallel passage with regularity, representing a point of convergence between the two tests. The strategy for dealing with parallel passages on the SAT 1600 is not likely to change significantly.

About the Same: Big Picture Questions

Big Picture Questions ask about overall trends in a passage, inquiring about the main purpose, the central claim, or the developmental pattern of a passage. The SAT 2400 and 1600 differ little when it comes to Big Picture Questions, as the SAT 2400 includes 9.3% big pictures questions, while the SAT 1600 includes 6.7%. The ACT, however, places greater focus on Big Picture questions, which appear with a frequency of 22.5%. Indeed, Big Picture questions are the third largest question category on the ACT. 


Change # 1: Vocabulary – No More Sentence Completion, But More Vocabulary in Context

The first big change to the SAT 1600 is that it no longer contains sentence completion questions! Sentence completion questions are a hallmark of the SAT 2400 Critical Reading section, making up almost a third of the section. The SAT 1600 and the ACT have none. This is great news for students who do not have an arsenal of anachronistic vocabulary.

However, the SAT 1600 doubles (to 15%) the number of vocabulary in context questions as compared to the SAT 2400 (7%), whereas the ACT includes but 3%. Vocabulary in context questions test “students’ understanding of the meaning and use of words and phrases in … passages.”[1] The College Board insists that these “words and phrases are neither highly obscure nor specific to any one domain”.[2] As such, students will have fewer obscure vocabulary questions on the SAT 1600 relative to the emphasis on sentence completion questions on the SAT 2400!

However, as outlined below, this change is not to suggest that vocabulary will cease to be a challenge for some students and an asset for others; instead the nature of the vocabulary exercise has changed.

Strategy # 1: Vocabulary – Changing, But Still a Must!

The SAT appears to obviating the need to memorize long lists of anachronistic, obscure, ethereal (you pick the word!) vocabulary. In place of sentence completion questions, the SAT 1600 emphasizes vocabulary in context questions. For most students, this transition is a relief, although literary savants might feel they have lost an opportunity to distinguish themselves. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle.

However mainstream the words, vocabulary in context questions often test the secondary meaning of the word. In many ways it takes an expanded vocabulary to know that if person X has a “bent” for Y; it means X has a knack or proclivity for Y. Vocabulary in context questions are also likely to append documents that fill the SAT 1600’s promised stable of Great Global Conversations documents, that often use, to quote the College Board, “elevated language”.[3] To be sure, the context surrounding the tested vocabulary will provide hints and guidance on the word’s meaning. However, the vocabulary tested will remain – at times – tricky, and fall outside the normal usage of the word in question.

It is also worth remembering that the SAT 1600 combines the Writing and Reading sections for the purposes of scoring. If you add the vocabulary questions from both sections (word choice and vocabulary in context questions, respectively), vocabulary questions make up significant proportion (13%) of the combined average questions per test for Writing and Reading.


Change # 2: Detail Questions – Happy Hunting: 50% Lack a Line Reference

Characteristic of the SAT 2400’s Critical Reading section is the process of interpreting the plain meaning of a particular detail in a passage. Unlike the task required for an advanced literature class, to answer a detail question, a student must simply identify a response that best matches the plain meaning of the detail—in its immediate textual context. To successfully answer the question, the student need only look at a small snapshot of the text, without consideration for big picture trends or analysis. Indeed detail questions comprise 61% of the SAT 2400’s passage-based Critical Reading section questions. This trend of asking student to identify a particular detail in a passage continues at similarly high rates in the SAT 1600 (51%), and the ACT (66%).

In a twist, however, one of the biggest amendments to the SAT 1600 Reading section is the inclusion of detail questions that lack a line reference. While virtually all line detail questions on the SAT 2400 include line references, 50% of the SAT 1600’s detail questions have a line reference, but 50% do not. The method for approaching questions without a line reference is markedly different from that for questions with line references. Nonetheless, there is good news. The ACT has 43% of detail questions with no line reference, compared to 32% of questions that do have a line reference.

Strategy 2: What Now? Weighing a Read-First or a Question-Led Approach

The single most drastic (and disruptive) change is the removal of line references from 50% of detail questions on the SAT 1600. For students familiar with the SAT 2400, in which line references were almost universally provided for detail questions, it might seem (and it may well be the truth) that the test writers are trying to mess with the ability to adopt a question-led approach. Add to this the fact that evidence questions cite four different line references—often in diverse locations within the passage—and it might seem that the best approach might be to throw in the towel, and adopt an old-fashioned read-first strategy.

We at University Select aren’t so sure that a read-first approach should be the new normal. The problem with a read-first approach is that a majority of Reading sections questions (usually detail questions) can only be answered with reference to a specific portion of the passage. Because the correct answer is rooted in textual evidence, it is difficult-to-impossible to distinguish between responses without returning to the text of the passage. Put another way, big picture questions can often (although not always) be answered from memory, but the majority of questions—detail questions—almost invariably require a reassessment of a portion of the passage for textual evidence. As a result, a heavily annotated read-first method is—for most students—overly time consuming, with one potential result that students do not have adequate time to analyze question responses. 

Fortunately, the ACT requires students to hunt for details with no line references at a much higher frequency (44% on the ACT versus 20% on the SAT 1600) than the SAT 1600, and University Select’s question-led strategy for ACT Reading question sets should approximate many of the challenges introduced by this change.


Change # 3: Evidence Questions – Unique to the SAT 1600

The third considerable change is that students are asked to go one step further after answering a detail question. Half of the detail questions are followed by a question that asks students to identify which of the responses best supports their answer. The College Board has labeled these types of questions “command of evidence” questions, where the student must “identify the portion of the text that serves as the best evidence for the conclusions [the students] reach.”[4] As such, the student must “students both interpret text [i.e. find the detail] and back up their interpretation by citing the most relevant textual support.[5]

An important feature of these evidence questions is that they are often coupled with a detail question or (less often) with a parallel passage question. Students are first asked a detail or parallel passage question and then asked to pinpoint what text best supports their answer. A problem with this coupling, which accounts for approximately 35% of the Reading section, is that if a student misses the first question, the student will most likely also miss the second question (relating to the evidence for the previous question). The SAT 1600 is unique in its inclusion of evidence questions, as the SAT 2400 and ACT have none.

Strategy 3: New Evidence Questions, Not New Strategy

            Although evidence questions are unique to the SAT 1600, this new question type doubles down on the role of gathering textual evidence to answer detail questions—making explicit an approach already central to University Select’s Evidence-Based Exclusion Method for answering Reading Test questions. The good news is that University Select’s method for finding the answer to a detail question is premised on identifying textual-evidence. Still, with the omission of so many line references, and the extra step required by evidence questions, students can expect to expend the extra 13 seconds per question on navigating the passage.


Change # 4: Graphics – Cannot Ignore 11% of the Reading Section

The SAT 1600 uniquely includes approximately 5.5 graphics questions per test (or 11% of Reading section questions). Neither the SAT 2400 nor the ACT include these types of questions in their Reading sections. On the SAT 1600 a student will encounter two passages that include one to two “graphics” (tables, graphs, and charts).[6] As noted in the Section I chart, the graphics will accompany a History/Social Studies or Science Long Passage. These graphics “convey information related to the passage content.” Students must “interpret the information” and/or “integrate that information with the information in the text.”[7] In other words, students are asked to extract specific details from the graphic, identify a possible combined interpretation of the text and graphic, or find evidence in the graph for a particular answer. As 11% of the Reading section questions relate to graphics, students cannot afford to tiptoe past them, as might be done in the Writing section, where graphic questions represent but 3% of the Writing section.

Strategy # 4: Graphics – Do Them Last

Merely saving the graphic questions until the end helps ensure that students have a handle on the text of the passage and thus can more easily tackle graphics questions that repeat themes already elicited from the text.



While it is evident that the SAT is changing, it is not evident that those changes will make preparation for the new SAT as arduous as it seems. The content of the new SAT can be deduced from the Sample Tests provided by the College Board, available on Khan Academy and on our website.[8] Based on our categorization and statistical analysis of these tests, the SAT 1600 contains four major changes as compared to the SAT 2400. Of these four major changes on the SAT, only one requires an entirely new strategy: approaches to graphics questions. That strategy is just a matter of ordering: do graphic questions last. Otherwise, students will continue to increase their vocabulary – as the Reading section includes 15% of vocabulary in context questions AND the Writing section includes 11% of word choice questions. Students will also continue to employ line reference question strategies from the SAT 2400, but will also have to develop a strategy for detail questions that have no line reference, drawn largely from the ACT.  Ultimately, the 13 additional seconds per question provided by the SAT 1600 will be necessary – as students navigate a variety of new question types. However, all in all, students and educators should feel pretty confident not only in what to expect in the SAT 1600 Reading section—they should feel increasingly confident in how best to prepare for this section!



[1], p.48.

[2], p.48.

[3] The College Board, The Official SAT Study Guide (2015), p.18.

[4], p.51.

[5], p.51.

[6], p.54.

[7], p.54.