SAT test bubble

April is ending, which means that many Chinese applicants have made their US school decisions. Their multiple-year admissions journey has finally come to an end. But SAT prep continues to chug along in China.

Recently, The College Board announced that beginning in 2016, the new SAT would focus on achievement rather than aptitude. Understandably, students, parents, academic institutions, educators, admissions offices, journalists and many others are guessing how the test’s role will change in the admissions process; this guessing continues even as The College Board releases new SAT example questions.

Yunong Wu, an established SAT prep expert and GM of DK Education, recently told Vericant’s Guy Sivan:

These changes will definitely mean overall scores will go up for Chinese test takers. The changes benefit Chinese, and even more broadly students of non-American, non-Western cultural backgrounds. Changes to the essay writing will definitely increase the challenge for Chinese students. Even though the essay portion is now optional, most Chinese students will choose to write the essay.

It will affect students currently in their third year of middle school (9th grade), lengthening the amount of time they will need to spend to prepare for the test. SAT test prep is originally oriented at students in their first two years of high school (10th and 11th grade). But the test changes may mean 9th graders will be begin to be included as well.”

If Chinese 9th-graders (in their last year of middle school) join the SAT prep world, Chinese families will face many different decisions.  Now, they’ll have to decide between the Senior High School Entrance Examination (ZhongKao) and National Higher Education Entrance Examination (GaoKao), where to go to school and how to map out their school years, and etc.

All non-Americans can benefit themselves by learning practical vocabulary, history, and critical thinking.  Wu might be right about the SAT changes being beneficial for Chinese students, but even after adjusting to the new format, the verbal and writing sections will always be the most difficult for Chinese test-takers.

Some journalists have provided broad coverage of China’s reaction to the new SAT (I especially recommend this Bloomberg piece by Natasha Khan).

The 3 following changes are the most relevant to Chinese students.  Here are some quick thoughts on how they’ll impact Chinese students in 2016:

1. Say “Goodbye!” to memorization

“Set the bar, keep it there, and we will jump over it.”

This is how many Chinese applicants and their families perceive US standardized testing and the admissions process.  They want to know about minimum test scores and what information should be memorized.

In the new SAT, esoteric vocabulary has been removed.  Memorization will be significantly less helpful than before.  Seeing vocabulary in context will eliminate the need to memorize and significantly reduce difficulty for test-takers, Chinese test-takers included.  Adjustment to reduced memorization will likely be a slow process though.

2. Thorough understanding of significant texts from U.S. history and science

The College Board states:

“America’s founding documents — such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights — are all rather short, but they have inspired a conversation that endures today. Every time students take the redesigned SAT, they will encounter an excerpt from one of the Founding Documents or a text from the ongoing Great Global Conversation about freedom, justice, and human dignity. In this way, we hope that the redesigned SAT will inspire deep engagement with texts that matter and reflect not only what is important for college and career, but what is important for citizenship here and around the world.”

Other sample texts could be a selection from the Federalist Papers or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

The College Board made an awesome decision.

Chinese students are going to the United States to study.  It makes perfect sense for them to understand the foundation of the new community they’re entering.  Chinese students often cite progressive thinking, freedom of expression, cultural diversity, and liberal arts education as the benefits of studying in the U.S.  These benefits are directly attributed to historical documents and people who embody American ideals (cue shotgun blast and soaring Bald Eagle).

Chinese schools, in first-tier cities with international divisions, often add AP coursework in American History and Government to their Chinese history course offerings.  Students who have access to this variety of history will likely come out ahead.  If schools and test prep companies do their jobs correctly, the overall quality of Chinese applicants could really improve over the next few years.

“Doing their job correctly” now means more work for SAT prep companies in China/Asia.  If you’re an instructor with an SAT prep company in China, how do you begin teaching Chinese students about MLK’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail”?  Slavery? And 20th century U.S. race relations?  Do you just focus on MLK?  It will be exciting to see how the Chinese test prep industry actually handles having to teach history.

Perhaps I’m not giving enough credit to Chinese culture and students.  I asked our video editor, Kequan, about whether or not he knew who Martin Luther King Jr. was:

yes, of course…..I have a dream!

Wanting to probe further, I asked him why Martin Luther King Jr. is so famous:

“Because he helped black people rise in society and improved race relations. I think many Chinese youth know who he is. Many Chinese know of the major U.S. race issues. Plus, the beliefs that he fought for are applicable to the entire world.”

3. Transition from value-based reading to evidence-based reading

In the new SAT test, students will have to read a passage and explain the author’s argument with supporting text from the passage.

Critical thinking is not a hallmark of Chinese education. Chinese students don’t have many classroom opportunities to demonstrate interpretive abilities.

Students will have to spend time deciphering context and improving their analytical skills.


How are you preparing for the 2016 SAT? How will the booming educational consultant industry in China change to meet the SAT’s new challenges? What do you think will be easy or difficult on the new SAT for Chinese students? What changes would you’ve made to the SAT?

Share your thoughts in the comment section below!


  1. Lev Navarre Chao says

    I’m a curriculum writer for a test-prep company based in the Boston area; my company has running classroom-program contracts with a number of Vericant’s partner institutions in New England. I’m fluent in Mandarin and I’ve personally tutored a spread of mainland students in SSAT, ISEE, SAT, and ACT. They’ve had mixed results, ranging from total discouragement to Ivy acceptances. As our curriculum team has begun writing drafts for our new SAT textbooks, I’ve kept an eye towards the challenges Chinese students will face.

    For various reasons, the essay strikes me as a tremendously intimidating new obstacle for non-English speakers. The CB’s 211-page “Test Specifications for the Redesigned SAT” (available at ) indicates that the new essay will require each student to read a passage critically, identify the mechanisms linking its evidence and subarguments, and then write an essay describing its structure, rhetorical devices, etc. – all within 50 minutes. That’s no small task, even for native English speakers.
    The new Writing and Language section is patterned closely on the ACT’s English section. I think this shift will pose additional challenges for Chinese students. Generally speaking, the old SAT’s multiple-choice Writing section was limited to a predictable list of grammar rules. However, the new standard will also require students to master punctuation, essay organization, articles like “a/an/the,” and a wider spread of word-choice/concision questions. This could pose a serious challenge to companies which employ non-native English speakers as teachers.

    Even the math will be more difficult, simply because the new SAT math will require more reading than the current SAT’s does. The CB is making a shift towards multipart, complex word problems. For instance, the dollar-rupee currency exchange problem on p. 154 of “Test Specifications” forces the student to read two paragraphs before she even arrives at the first question. In total, she must read 4 paragraphs before moving on to the next set of questions. I suspect that this shift is intended to make the test harder for non-Americans. Consider David Coleman’s claim on p. 39 that “the U.S. results on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) exam, which includes a test of mathematical literacy, show that our schools are not doing well in producing quantitatively literate graduates. Quantitative literacy is part of participation in a democracy…”

    In other words, Coleman and the CB want the test to be harder, they want the test to reflect what they believe are American values, and they hope that the new, higher standards will ultimately lead Americans to out-compete their international rivals. In my estimation, there is no part of the new SAT which will be easier for Chinese students than the current SAT. In fact, I consider the new SAT to be patently nationalistic and even exclusionary in its intent.

    This doesn’t mean the new test will be bad; in fact, I think that some of the changes are healthy in the challenges they present. However, I have a hard time agreeing with the claims that “These changes will definitely mean overall scores will go up for Chinese test takers. The changes benefit Chinese, and even more broadly students of non-American, non-Western cultural backgrounds.” Rather, the new SAT will favor those literate, critical thinkers who are well-versed in American history and culture. Ironically, the justifications for these new standards center around typical level-the-playing-field arguments. The new standard will only widen the gap between American suburbia and everybody else, the Chinese included.

    To be fair, the CB has not yet finalized its new test specifications; the upcoming CB Forum this fall will likely reveal more information. But if the CB holds the course they’ve set out last month’s publication, Chinese students will essentially have two options: they can devote extra time to immersion in American literature, history, and culture, or they can switch to the ACT.

    • Langston Smith says

      All of the challenges (which you eloquently pointed out) make me especially interested to see how the SAT/ACT choice for Mainland Chinese is affected. Thanks for the thoughts Lev!

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