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College-Level Rigor in the High School Classroom: SAT Curriculum, Common Core and College Readiness

Teacher helping student with SAT curriculum

SAT, Common Core, and College Readiness

No teacher, at the beginning of their career, enters the field to teach test prep. Likewise, no student shows up for their English or math class expecting an SAT prep class. They see performance on a test like the SAT as fundamentally distinct from performance in the classroom. However, College Board’s redesign of the SAT in 2016 sought to directly address these concerns. The SAT assesses the same competencies that teachers seek to foster in their students: core college-readiness academic skills, problem solving abilities, and understanding of complex relationships.

To better align with high school curriculum, the SAT explicitly aligned itself with the Common Core State Standards, currently adopted by forty-two states. This alignment creates a win-win situation for students and teachers. Students have a vested interest in their SAT scores to improve their college prospects, and teachers are held accountable for their students’ performance on the Common Core State Standards. When the test assesses what is important to teachers, preparation isn’t merely “test prep”—it’s key academic instruction to prepare students for the challenges they will face in college. And the College Board isn’t making this claim without some evidence to back it up (just like we’d require of a student!). Their early predictive validity studies show a moderate correlation in both verbal and math between SAT scores and first-year college GPA. They’ll expand this analysis to a more significant set of students in 2018 to see how robust the relationship is.

High-Value Skills in SAT Curriculum

It’s hard to connect the esoteric idea of the SAT with the concrete skills teachers are trying to promote in their classrooms every day. However, when teachers first look at those skills most frequently assessed on the SAT—those most important to predicting college readiness—it’s often an “aha!” moment.


Reading on standardized tests has long been thought of merely as assessing reading speed rather than comprehension. The SAT seeks to combat this perception by providing more time per passage and per question than it has in the past (and substantially more than ACT, an explicitly speeded test, provides). The test also brings in texts more aligned with what already exists in the classroom. The rigorous texts have an average Lexile of around 1300 L and include texts students might encounter in a history or literature class. Authors have included Alexis de Tocqueville, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Douglas, and Charlotte Bronte.

Beyond the texts themselves, the SAT is asking students to perform tasks that most teachers would applaud—citing claims with evidence. One of the most common mistakes in student critical thinking is to make a claim about a particular text without appropriate supporting material. The SAT addresses this head on with their “command of evidence” items, like the one below from one of College Board’s released test:

Example of questions from SAT curriculum

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Command of evidence questions make up 10 items on every SAT—approximately a fifth of the text. This skill is a clear analogue to Common Core’s Anchor Standard #1 in reading: “Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.”

Writing & Language

The Writing & Language test is often a contentious topic with English teachers, raising a challenging question: should grammar be explicitly taught at the high school level, or should it only be addressed through revisions to student writing? The SAT focuses heavily on the logic and rhetoric of writing—of the top five skills assessed on the SAT Writing & Language section, four of them relate to rhetoric rather than mechanics. The most frequently assessed skill requires students to revise text to improve transitional words, phrases, and sentences to connect information and ideas. Questions assessing this skill appear more than five times per test on average.


Math teachers, for the most part, are delighted by what they are seeing on the SAT Math sections. The SAT Math is asking students to go deeper with concepts and focus on core algebra content. The number one grouping of skills on the test—with around six items per SAT—deals with ratios and proportional relationships, assessing students’ ability to make meaning from contextualized math problems, develop equations, and solve. The next most frequently assessed skills require students incorporate higher-level algebra skills: manipulating and isolating variables, adding, subtracting, and multiplying polynomials, and creating and solving inequalities. The following item could find its home in any math classroom:

Example math question on SAT curriculum

Much to the consternation of some geometry teachers, SAT Math focuses almost exclusively on algebra skills. However, this doesn’t mean geometry isn’t important in high school math. Rather, items that focus on algebra may incorporate geometry skills as well, encouraging students to integrate their math knowledge across courses and years.

Authentic Integration & Professional Development Support

If teachers are first bought into the skills assessed on the SAT, the next question is of course—how do I bring these into my curriculum without creating a drill-and-kill atmosphere? At Academic Approach, we are constantly working with school leaders and teachers to find the most authentic answer to this question. Over the last year, we’ve worked with teachers through our Scope and Sequence professional development and SAT curriculum support series to make this integration seamless.

We began with an alignment task—identifying the skills that already existed in teachers’ curricula that aligned with skills that were assessed on the SAT. We then worked to identify the SAT Domains and Dimensions and Common Core Standards associated with those skills, and we developed holistic instructional practices for reading and math teachers that would support the integration of SAT critical thinking across content:


-Constructing claims, arguments, and explanations related to information from the text and using evidence from the texts to support them

-Critically evaluating claims, arguments, and explanations

-Providing feedback on short pieces of writing and revising writing based on feedback

-Developing metacognitive awareness of writing practices in their own and others’ writing (e.g., writing process, areas of improvement, revision process)

Close Reading

-Engaging in productive forms of close reading that contribute to deep understanding and interpretation of the text (e.g., summarizing, finding the main idea/point, using context clues to understand challenging and/or disciplinary words and phrases, engaging in targeted sense-making with challenging parts of the text, identifying the most important information in the text)

-Engaging with informational texts in history and science for purposes of understanding characters, theme, or plot

-Understanding the point of view or perspective of the author or of particular characters and how the point of view shapes aspects of the text

-Connecting with relevant prior knowledge for purposes of understanding particular aspects of the text or how the characters’ experiences relate to the students’ own experiences

-Engaging in intertextuality by synthesizing information from multiple sources for purposes of better understanding the characters, themes, or main ideas in a literary work

-Developing metacognitive awareness of close reading practices, particularly becoming aware of how productive forms of close reading contribute to deep understanding of texts


-Explaining the meaning of a problem and actively looking for ways to solve it by critically analyzing, speculating about the form and meaning of the solution, and planning a pathway to get there.

-Constructing arguments by consulting definitions, theorems and previously established results and justifying conclusions by building a logical progression of claims and using examples.

-Making sense of quantities and their relationships when problem solving by creating coherent arguments and using symbols to represent mathematical situations.

-Applying skills learned in math class to situations encountered in everyday life.

As a result of this thoughtful work, we’re seeing progress in developing an SAT curriculum that is pushing rigor and increasing scores while also targeting critical thinking.

Early indicators from our first round of classroom observations suggest that students in the intervention classrooms are engaging in more rigorous, SAT-aligned skills and practices than those in comparison classrooms.

During our first round of classroom observations, we rated each classroom on the targeted practices that would be associated with successful SAT-aligned instruction in that discipline. Each of these practices was rated on a 5-point scale based on the extent to which we saw evidence of that practice during the observation. As you can see in the graphs below, we saw greater evidence of engagement in most targeted practices in intervention classrooms, in both reading and math, than in comparison classrooms. In fact, we observed statistically significant differences in the extent to which students were engaging in productive forms of close reading, practicing skills that are critical to evidence-based argumentation, and being scaffolded towards SAT-level rigor in reading classrooms. Thus, there was greater evidence of productive engagement in rigorous, SAT-aligned skills and practices in classrooms using our instructional approach. 

Findings from Academic Approach SAT curriculum classroom observations

Students’ engagement in rigorous, SAT-aligned practices is also evident in the written work that students in intervention classrooms have produced. The annotations shown below show active sense-making with a challenging text. The student uses context clues to understand challenging vocabulary, identifies key information in the passage, and makes sense of the author’s argument.

Annotations from Academic Approach intervention group in SAT curriculum observation

In the excerpt above, a teacher and student from the intervention group discuss the arguments and evidence put forth in two passages. The student evaluates each author’s argument, contrasts the passages, and makes a strong claim that is then supported by text-based evidence.

Thus, even at this early stage of our work there is evidence that students are successfully carrying out these challenging but critical practices.  We see in our this work a very positive direction for effectively increasing rigor in high school classroom through thoughtfully aligned SAT instruction.

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