March 30, 2017

Analyzing Primary Sources in the New SATs

Students at Irving School in Berwyn, IL analyzing primary sources

The Common Core State Standards emphasize primary source analysis (specifically, RH.9-10/11-12.1, RH.9-10/11-12.2, RH.9-10/11-12.9, RI.9-10/11-12.9). Now the retooled SAT will too according to Todd Balf’s article, “The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul“, published March 6, 2014 in the New York Times Magazine. Below is an excerpt. Click the previous link to read the full article.

Starting in spring 2016, students will take a new SAT — a three-hour exam scored on the old 1,600-point system, with an optional essay scored separately. Evidence-based reading and writing, [College Board President & CEO David Coleman] said, will replace the current sections on reading and writing. It will use as its source materials pieces of writing — from science articles to historical documents to literature excerpts — which research suggests are important for educated Americans to know and understand deeply. “The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and the Federalist Papers,” Coleman said, “have managed to inspire an enduring great conversation about freedom, justice, human dignity in this country and the world” — therefore every SAT will contain a passage from either a founding document or from a text (like Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address) that is part of the “great global conversation” the founding documents inspired.

Coleman gave me what he said was a simplistic example of the kind of question that might be on this part of the exam. Students would read an excerpt from a 1974 speech by Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas, in which she said the impeachment of Nixon would divide people into two parties. Students would then answer a question like: “What does Jordan mean by the word ‘party’?” and would select from several possible choices. . . .

The Barbara Jordan vocabulary question would have a follow-up — “How do you know your answer is correct?” — to which students would respond by identifying lines in the passage that supported their answer. . . .

To that end, the question for the essay portion of the test will also be reformulated so that it will always be the same, some version of: “As you read the passage in front of you, consider how the author uses evidence such as facts or examples; reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence; and stylistic or persuasive elements to add power to the ideas expressed. Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience.” The passage will change from test to test, but the analytical and evidentiary skills tested will always be the same. “Students will be asked to do something we do in work and in college every day,” Coleman said, “analyze source materials and understand the claims and supporting evidence.”

Teaching resources

Primary source sets 

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