SAT Prep – Math Section Basics

The New SAT Math Section

The Math Section of the 2023 SAT is similar to that created during the exam overhaul in 2016, which redesigned the Math portion to offer students and educators a higher degree of relevance to postsecondary study in a wider range of disciplines. Although abstract math is still a major content area, there is now significant emphasis on the types of math skills needed for study in fields other than STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math), particularly the social sciences, and because of this, problems on career-related issues are also included. The 2023 SAT Math Test should be viewed as a better assessment than older versions, but it is important for students to understand exactly what type of math they will be tested on in order to best prepare for this section of the SAT.

SAT Math Section Testing Areas

The 2023 SAT Math Test contains four areas of focus: Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, Passport to Advanced Math, and Additional Topics in Math.

Heart of Algebra questions ask students to create and solve equations, focusing on the mastery of linear equations and systems. There are 19 Heart of Algebra questions.

Problem Solving and Data Analysis questions present test-takers with problems from science, social science, and career contexts that test proportional reasoning abilities and assess the student’s quantitative literacy. There are 17 Problem Solving and Data Analysis questions.

Passport to Advanced Math questions feature complex equations and functions needed for college-level study in the "hard" sciences and include questions that require the student to manipulate complex equations. There are 16 Passport to Advanced Math questions.

Finally, Additional Topics in Math questions include complex numbers, trigonometry, and geometry. There are six Additional Topics in Math questions.

SAT Math Section Format and Scoring

The 2023 Math Test is divided into two sections, one where students may use a calculator and one where calculator use is not permitted. When the SAT goes digital (beginning towards the end of 2023 for international students and 2024 for students in the United States), students will be allowed to use a calculator on the entire Math Test; students may bring their own calculators, but one will also be embedded in the digital version of the test. Until that time, however, the test will continue to be broken into calculator and no-calculator sections.

Students are given a total of 80 minutes to complete the SAT Math Test. All questions are either multiple choice or gridded response, in which test-takers write in numerical answers and fill in the corresponding boxes. The test includes 58 total questions divided into calculator and no-calculator segments. For the calculator section, students have 55 minutes to complete 38 questions, whereas for the no-calculator section, students are given 25 minutes to complete 20 questions. In addition to the overall Math Section (200 to 800) and Math Test scores (10 to 40), students receive sub scores for Heart of Algebra, Problem Solving and Data Analysis, and Passport to Advanced Math (1 to 15). Cross-test scores for Analysis in History/Social Studies and Analysis in Science (10 to 40) are partially derived from selected Math Test questions. Additional Topics in Math questions count only toward the overall Math Test and Math Section scores.

Research in Support of SAT Math Section Revisions

A 2009 survey indicated that the overwhelming majority of high school teachers (almost 90%) felt that their students were adequately prepared for college-level mathematics, but most postsecondary instructors (nearly 75%) did not share this view. Many students have therefore been forced to take remedial math courses in college, and remediation is generally associated with lower graduation rates and higher tuition costs. Surveys also show that college professors see the problem more as a lack of deep command of core mathematical skills than sheer breadth of mathematical knowledge. The College Board asserts that its redesign of the SAT's math assessment embraces recommendations articulated in a 2013 paper authored by the Council of Chief State School Officers: "In a CCR [College and Career Ready] -aligned assessment system . . . high school [math assessment] focuses on widely applicable prerequisites for careers and postsecondary education." Following extensive revisions in 2016, the SAT's emphasis on problem solving and data analysis is meant to address the deficiencies of quantitative skills that have been repeatedly shown in published research comparing American students to those in several other industrialized countries.

Preparing for the SAT Math Section

The 2023 SAT Math Test is a substantially improved assessment in its accessibility and relevance to postsecondary study. The math skills needed for success, however, remain a challenge to acquire, especially for students who are not naturally gifted in math. Test-takers no longer need to know as much math as before, but they must be able to:

  • understand the idea of math as logic

  • solve quantitative problems

  • be competent in foundational and more advanced mathematical topics such as algebra, geometry, and trigonometry

At first glance, preparing for the 2023 SAT math assessment can seem quite complicated, with a cluttered landscape of test preparation options. A large number of test prep resources are available, such as self-study methods and free video-recorded instruction, but the most reliable path to high scores on the new SAT Math Test is still working with experienced and knowledgeable tutors. Qualified SAT tutors can significantly enhance and greatly abbreviate the preparation process through targeted instruction based on individual student challenges. While there are many free resources available online to students, it is important to study the most current and up-to-date SAT materials, and it is not always clear how old online resources are or how relevant they may be to the current version of the SAT. When preparing for the SAT, it is imperative to study effective materials in an efficient manner, eliminating uncertainty and ensuring that student efforts are progressing towards receiving the highest scores possible.

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