The new math section of the SAT doesn’t just test students’ knowledge of math

Time for a valediction.
Time for a valediction.
Image: AP Photo/Alex Brandon
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The SAT, one of the US’ two major college admissions exams, has long been separated into its math and verbal components. But the newest version of the test, to be administered starting on March 5, would seem to make the split a little less clear.

In addition to algebra and data analysis, the math sections will require linguistic adroitness—enough, at least, to parse problems dealing with real-life applications. “It’s about the real world,” the nonprofit College Board, the test’s creator, says on its website. “Instead of testing you on every math topic there is, the new SAT asks you to use the math that you’ll rely on most in all sorts of situations.”

The new test seeks to show math in context, but some sample questions released through the online education platform and College Board partner Khan Academy may be straight-up confusing to teens.

A question on the old test about manipulating exponents might appear like this:

If p and m are positive integers and 16p = 2m, what is the value of ⁄ m?

On the new test a similar skill appears as a word problem:

B = 70M0.75

Kleiber’s law, above, relates the basal metabolic rate, B, measured in kilocalories per day, of an animal to its body mass, M, measured in kilograms. If the body mass of an elephant is 106 times that of a mouse, which of the following best compares their basal metabolic rates?

Another math question, about isolating quantities, asks:

A = P (1 + r)t

If an initial investment, P, bears interest at a rate, r, and is compounded annually, its future value, A, after t years can be determined with the equation above. Which of the following equations shows the interest rate in terms of the future value, initial investment, and number of years invested?

Some experts worry these wordy, jargon-heavy questions will create problems for non-native English speakers especially, the New York Times reports.

Jeff Shamp, who teaches high school math at New York’s elite Riverdale Country School, tells Quartz, “I could see SAT math going from a great equalizer for ESL students to yet another deficiency.”

The College Board tells Quartz, “We have redesigned the SAT with all students in mind, including English language learners. The test has been designed to reflect what research tells us is essential for college readiness and in so doing it is reflective of what students are learning in classrooms throughout the US.”