What Is The SAT Reasoning Test?

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The SAT Reasoning Test is the old name for the SAT–which has also been called the “SAT I” and has been officially renamed the SAT as of 2016. However, because the SAT was called the SAT Reasoning Test for so many years, people still regularly use the phrase SAT Reasoning Test to differentiate between the SAT and the SAT Subject Tests.

That being said, the SAT, formerly known as the SAT Reasoning Test, is one of the tests that students can choose to take when they are applying to colleges and universities in the United States. The SAT, or the SAT Reasoning Test, is different from the ACT–another college admissions test widely used in the United States–both in format and in content.

When students are applying to colleges in the United States, they submit their results from the SAT or the ACT for admissions purposes unless the school to which they are applying is “test optional.” Nevertheless, even when colleges are test optional, choosing to submit strong SAT or ACT scores can improve the chances of being admitted.

I’ve written a lot about how to study for the SAT, how to write the SAT essay, and what math is on the SAT. In this post, though, we’re going to take a look at the elements of reasoning on the SAT that point to why the word “reasoning” used to be included in the official name of the test.

Just because it’s not called the SAT Reasoning Test anymore doesn’t mean it doesn’t test reasoning. SAT Reasoning is a specific strength–probably the strength people are referring to when they stay that students are “good test-takers.” It’s what the rationale students use to justify their approaches and answer choices on the SAT’s various sections. This is also a technical, growable skill.

The SAT Reasoning Reading Test Section

The most complicated element of the SAT Reading section is embedded in its new name, “Evidence-Based Reading.”

The SAT Reading section asks students to provide evidence–by way of selecting an excerpt offered in a multiple choice list–for an observation they’ve made in a previous question. The questions appear in pairs on the test, although they aren’t marked as such; they just appear one after the other, so students need to build the habit of noticing when this is going on while they’re taking the test.

What is the SAT reasoning test

I frequently refer to the reasoning on the SAT reading section as a process of elimination that gamifies arriving at the same answer as the test maker. On multiple choice reading assessments of all kinds, it’s much easier to prove that one observation is definitively incorrect than to prove another is correct. In other words, the best reasoning strength you can build on the SAT reading is learning to justify correct answers on the reading by justifying why all three other answer choices are incorrect.

In carefully eliminating individual, incorrect words and phrases, and proving that answer choices do not provide the “evidence” the test is looking for, students use their reasoning to agree with the test-maker’s correct answer.

The SAT Reasoning Writing Multiple Choice Test Section

Naturally, most of the multiple choice writing section on the SAT consists of editing sentences for grammatical correctness. Comma placement, sentence structure, and brevity all appear on the test. However, some of the writing section questions ask students to select word choices which are “consistent” with the tone of the passage. Others ask students to select from phrases that are “accurate and relevant” or “effective” within the context of the passage.

Students may also be uncomfortable with questions that ask students to “effectively complete” a sentence or paragraph. Often the correct answer will require students to choose an answer that contains information that may not already be included in the passage, and that can feel like a bad move.

In each of these cases, students typically feel as though they are being called on to do more advanced content editing than is possible on a standardized test like the SAT–and that’s the counterintuitive key element of reasoning to cling to on this section. The writing section is entirely about doing specifically what you’re asked to do in the question, not intuiting effective creative writing solutions.

Here’s an example from SAT Official Practice Test 8:

Experts agree that the lion dance originated in the Han dynasty; however, there is little agreement about the dance’s original purpose. Some evidence suggests that the earliest version of the dance was an attempt to ward off an evil spirit; lions are obviously very fierce.

Which choice most effectively completes the explanation of a possible origin of the lion dance?

  1. NO CHANGE
  2. the evil spirit was called Nian.
  3. villagers dressed in lion costumes to scare the spirit away.
  4. the precise location of the village remains lots to history.  

Again, students get this sort of question wrong all the time because they disregard the question itself and, instead, put in the details that sound good to them, as though they were doing a peer editing exercise in school. The standardized test reasoning required here is to just do the task: select the choice that completes an explanation of the origin of the dance. Only one choice here does that: C, in which the villages started the dance “to scare the spirit away.”

The SAT Reasoning Math Test Section 1 – No Calculators Allowed

If you consider that a lot of high school math is like a puzzle–knowing rules, moving pieces around, taking appropriate shortcuts, avoiding traps–it’s easy to see how it lends itself to a standardized reasoning test. Naturally there is a legion of minute ways that reasoning is tested on the math sections of the SAT, and we can’t go into them all in a single blog post. However, I have detailed what math is on the SAT in another post.

What is the SAT reasoning test

Because the College Board has included an SAT math test that does not allow the use of a calculator, it’s a natural conclusion that this section wants to see your arithmetic skills in action.

However, the more evolved reasoning students need to use on the No Calculator test is actually focused on finding the fastest, most elegant way to solve problems. The No Calculator section often includes questions that could trap students into doing complicated arithmetic if they don’t know what to look for in the question to avoid them (such as taking opportunities to cancel large numbers, working creatively with simultaneous equations, or using reasoning to interpret elements of linear equations).

Not only does complicated arithmetic create opportunities for more errors, it also takes up precious time.

Be wary of test prep that teaches you to use shortcuts that don’t require you to understand a full mathematical explanation of the question. Understanding the backbones of the math on the SAT is the best way to avoid flawed shortcuts and lengthy arithmetic traps that can cost you precious minutes and, ultimately, negatively impact your score.

The SAT Reasoning Math Test Section 2 – Calculators Allowed

Once they’re onto the SAT Math Test section that permits a calculator, some students may think it’s smooth sailing. This section, however, continues to ask students to find the fastest, most elegant way to solve problems. But this time, the test creatively uses the temptation to use your calculator as a crutch.

In other words, the central reasoning students need to use on the Math SAT Calculator section involves assessing whether or not the question approach would actually benefit from using a calculator.

You’d be surprised how often it doesn’t.

Don’t abandon the elegant math you’re likely learning for the No Calculator test when you’re on the Calculator section. Treat both tests almost the same to maximize your score and show you possess the kind of reasoning the SAT tests for.