With the new 2016 SAT, Khan Academy has partnered with the College Board to create a free SAT prep program.
All things considered, Khan Academy's SAT prep program is high quality. It's a great introduction to the test and elevates the bar of free SAT materials. Students unable to afford books or prep programs have a useful resource to train for the test.
But it's not complete.
There's still a lot missing from the Khan Academy SAT program that can prevent you from getting the highest score possible.
In this review, you'll understand what exactly is wrong with the Khan SAT program – and why the partnership with the College Board means these problems will never be fixed. If you plan to use the Khan Academy SAT program, this will show you what you're missing.
Here's a one-sentence summary of my stance: Khan Academy could have built a much better SAT prep program, but it's being handcuffed by the demands of the College Board.
To fully understand the weaknesses of Khan Academy's SAT program, you have to understand the nature of the partnership between College Board and Khan Academy.
To you, the high school student, the College Board may seem like a monolithic giant bent on ruining your life. But the reality is the College Board is a vulnerable group struggling to justify its existence in a shifting education landscape. This is the entire reason for the 2016 SAT redesign. You'll see how Khan Academy's SAT program is a tool used by College Board to further its own agenda.
If you're interested in why the College Board is struggling and its strategy to stay alive, then keep reading this from top to bottom.
If you just care about hearing the pros and cons of Khan Academy's SAT program, click here to skip down the page. However, if you plan on using Khan Academy for 20 hours or more of prep, I think this article is well worth the 15 minute read, so you know what you're getting out of your studying.
Before we start, let's get two things out of the way.
First, these opinions are my own. While I know people who are current/former employees of Khan Academy, I'm not privy to any confidential information and didn't consult them for this article. I draw my own conclusions from my knowledge of the testing and education industries. Therefore, any information that isn't public (like the terms of the contract between Khan Academy and College Board) are purely my opinions about what's going on.
Second, I co-founded PrepScholar, an education technology company with our own online SAT and ACT prep programs. I'm clearly going to be biased toward thinking that our approach to the SAT is the right way to prep. Having worked with our thousands of students and seen our score improvements, I'm confident that we're on the right track.
So take all of what I say with a grain of salt, and make up your own mind. If you don't agree with what I say below, then that's cool. I wish you the best on your SAT studying and hope you get an awesome score.
If instead what I say makes sense to you, then you'd probably also like our SAT prep program. It provides a great SAT prep experience online with leading score improvement results. I believe we have the best SAT prep program available, and you'll see from my thinking below why that is.
Of course, you don't need to buy an SAT prep program to do great on the test. On this blog, we've published the best SAT resources available to support millions of students around the world to prep better. But if you could use help organizing your prep and could benefit from an all-inclusive SAT prep program that's effective and easy to use, then check us out.
Let's get started.
What's Khan Academy?
I'll say it upfront and repeat it throughout - Khan Academy is one of my favorite educational organizations. I have a HUGE amount of respect for them.
Years ago when I first saw their product and heard of their vision to provide free education to the world, I was blown away. Their approach seemed like such an obvious idea in retrospect, but no one was actually doing it.
Khan Academy started as a collection of math video lessons featuring Sal Khan. Since then, they've expanded their content dramatically to cover subjects beyond math to include art, economics, and computer science. They've also developed a more sophisticated program that tracks your progress and gives you practice questions. Khan Academy is now used in schools worldwide to supplement teacher teaching as part of a movement called ‘blended learning.'
Given Khan's educational reach and tech platform, they were a natural choice for College Board to partner with. On the surface, the program looks great. It's free, slick, and easy to use.
But if you peer under the surface, you'll understand why Khan's prep program has fundamental weaknesses, directly attributable to its partnership with the College Board.
College Board's 3 Giant Problems
Remember what I said above, about the College Board trying to justify its own existence? Here's why.
For decades, the SAT was the major game in town. If you wanted to get into a top college, you had to take the SAT. The ACT was around, but it wasn't as popular.
Fast forward to today. The College Board and the SAT have three big problems that threaten their existence:
Problem #1: The SAT doesn't strongly correlate with college success.
First and foremost, the purpose of the SAT is to differentiate better students from worse students. The higher the score you get, the more likely you'll succeed in college and career – supposedly. Colleges thus use SAT scores to admit the best students they can.
The problem is, colleges run analyses on their students and started finding that SAT score often wasn't the best predictor of success – grades and coursework were. Naturally, schools started thinking, "why do we even need the SAT?" This led to a movement to make the SAT/ACT optional. One of the most famous schools doing this is NYU, which allows you to substitute 3 AP exam scores in lieu of the SAT.
If this isn't problem enough…
Problem #2: Richer students tend to do better on the SAT.
Income inequality is a hot button topic in this country, especially when it comes to education, which is seen as a universal right. Over the past century, colleges have made a huge push to promote diversity and lower inequality where it can.
Unfortunately, the higher your family income, the higher your SAT score tends to be. This sounds bad.
The first thing people often think when they hear this is, "richer people can afford better SAT prep." This is true, but in reality this is a much more complicated problem with many factors at play. Income affects the type of parents you have, your environment, the resources you can access, how others treat you, and many more factors that sum up to your academic potential. So it's not all the College Board's fault.
Regardless, the correlation with income still sounds really bad. If colleges take students with higher SAT score, one can argue they're just admitting richer students – which is counter to most colleges' mission statements. This makes colleges think – "if the SAT doesn't predict college success well…AND it correlates with income…why in the world are we still using it?"
Strike 2. And the kicker…
Problem #3: The SAT is losing market share to ACT.
For decades, the SAT was far more popular than the ACT. No surprise – it had a head start, with the College Board founded in 1899 and the ACT in 1959. Up until 2008, the SAT had always held at least a 20% lead over the ACT in terms of number of test takers.
However, in 2012, the tables turned – for the very first time, the ACT had more test takers than the SAT. And in 2015, the gap widened – the ACT had 1.9 million test takers, compared to SAT's 1.7 million.
So why the changing in positions? The ACT has always positioned itself as a test of what you learn in school. In contrast, the SAT has always had more of a reputation as an aptitude test, closer to an IQ test. Partly for this reason, many states adopted the ACT as a state-wide standardized test (like Illinois, Michigan, and Utah). This means 100% of all high school juniors in these states take the ACT before graduation – which also means few of them feel they need to take the SAT.
You can tell that these are 3 HUGE problems. Not only is the ACT gaining ground, colleges overall are questioning the value of tests like the SAT and ACT.
If the College Board didn't do anything, the SAT would be obsolete before long. So it implemented its grand strategy – the 2016 SAT redesign, supported by the Khan Academy SAT prep program.
The College Board's Grand Strategy
Let's get right to it. Here's how the College Board is attacking all 3 problems above:
Strategy #1: To improve the correlation with college success, they redesigned the SAT.
The new SAT supposedly better matches the skills needed for college success. It now emphasizes skills you're likely to use in the future, like algebra and grammar in the context of passages. It got rid of skills panned as irrelevant, like obscure vocabulary and tricky math logic questions.
It also closely matches the new Common Core curriculum – no surprise, as a contributor to the Common Core (David Coleman) became president of the College Board in 2012.
Desired outcome: If the new SAT can better predict student success, then colleges will continue using the SAT as an admissions factor. The College Board will stay alive.
Strategy #2: To reduce income inequality, they partnered with Khan Academy to produce a free SAT prep program.
A common criticism of the SAT is that wealthier people can afford test prep or tutors, and this causes inequality. With Khan Academy's free SAT prep program, students who can't afford books or prep programs can now prep for free.
This in itself is a great step forward – don't get me wrong. As I'll explain below, the Khan Academy SAT program has a lot to offer and is a solid program.
But make no mistake, the College Board KNOWS how much this helps their marketing to colleges and to the public. With this program, they can now go to colleges and say, "we honestly believe our free SAT program is going to reduce inequality. This means when you choose students with higher SAT scores, you can be confident you're NOT biased by income."
While the reality of educational inequality is more complicated, this is great PR for College Board.
Desired outcome: Ideally, completely level out the playing field and solve income inequality. Since this is a tough problem and thus unlikely to happen, plan B is to CONVINCE colleges that the SAT doesn't bias for income, now that Khan Academy is around. This will get colleges to swallow the SAT more easily.
Strategy #3: By gaining reputation with colleges and broadening their reach to students, the SAT can compete with the ACT for market share.
The College Board wants more students to take the SAT. The more students who take the SAT, the more it'll be accepted as a default part of life, and the harder it'll be to get rid of. Furthermore, more SAT test-takers means more students who apply to colleges using the SAT, which means it'll be harder for colleges to get rid of their SAT requirement.
This is how the College Board will get more students to take the SAT:
- push states to adopt the SAT as state-wide standardized testing. The College Board can argue that the SAT is now Common Core aligned, so it'll test what schools are teaching. Furthermore, now that students have Khan Academy to prep for free, states won't feel as bad requiring all students to take the SAT. This competes directly with the ACT's state partnerships – in fact, Illinois and Colorado have already switched from the ACT to the SAT. This is huge – it takes away major market share from the ACT.
- use Khan Academy's reach to convert Khan users to prep for the SAT. Khan Academy has a nationwide reach with millions of student users. A lot of students who might not have taken the SAT otherwise can now learn about the SAT and take it. Furthermore, students who start prepping for the SAT first will be more likely to take the SAT rather than the ACT.
- promote the SAT among people who wouldn't normally take the SAT or go to college. Now that it has a great free resource in Khan Academy to promote, it can partner with organizations like Boys & Girls Clubs of America to reach millions more students.
In the chess game that is business strategy, the College Board made some brilliant moves here. By redesigning the test and offering a high quality free resource (Khan Academy), it has legitimate responses to each of its major problems: correlation to college success, income inequality, and ACT competition.
Why Does College Board's Strategy Matter for Khan Academy SAT?
Now what does this have to do with Khan Academy's weaknesses?
The critical point, for the purpose of this article, is that Khan Academy is a tool in College Board's strategy. The partnership exists to further College Board's mission and achieve its goals.
As a result, you have to see Khan Academy's SAT program as an extension of the College Board. Because Khan Academy SAT is an integral component of College Board's strategy and presentation to colleges, the College Board needs to control the content and messaging in Khan Academy's program.
Imagine if the College Board didn't have tight control. Imagine if Khan Academy ran counter to College Board's stated philosophies, like if Khan Academy said, "the SAT is a test that you can exploit to get a higher score."
This would destroy College Board's credibility with the people they're trying to impress - colleges and the American public.
College Board can't let this happen. The stakes are too high if something goes wrong. So they need to control the Khan Academy program.
Thus, Khan Academy SAT is a reflection of College Board - College Board's vision for themselves, College Board's approach to testing, and College Board's insistence on how YOU should prep for the SAT.
This is where we run into major problems, because you shouldn't believe many things that the College Board says about SAT - particularly about what it takes to improve your score.
Side note: I don't want to sound cynical here or make you think that the College Board has nefarious motives, like a cartoonish villain. I respect what College Board and Khan Academy are doing to help even the playing field and get more kids to get into college. They have good intentions, and the problems they are working on are hard and important.
Still, the College Board has an agenda and a strategy to meet its goals. Just because it wants to help more students get into college doesn't preclude it from pulling its levers to achieve its goals. One of these levers is Khan Academy's SAT program.
College Board's Stances Will Hurt You
So once again - because College Board is so tightly linked to Khan Academy's SAT program, the prep program will be a reflection of College Board's philosophies to the test.
Unfortunately, these philosophies don't reflect the reality of how to prep for the test to get the highest SAT score. Here are the most important problems.
First, for most of its 100+ years of existence, the College Board has maintained that you can't prep for the SAT. This goes back to the positioning of the SAT as the "scholastic aptitude test" – where aptitude refers to the innate ability you're born with. It's obviously changed its mind by releasing a program with Khan Academy, but, like a giant ship, an institution as old and big as the College Board can't change its course quickly.
Second, the College Board never, ever teaches test strategy. By test strategy, I mean test-taking skills that can raise your score even WITHOUT learning more core content like algebra.
An example of a test-taking skill is skipping the hardest questions and focusing your time on the easier questions that you're more likely to get correct. Another is developing a reliable formula for the SAT essay that will work every single time. Yet another is understanding how to approach Reading passages to balance time and accuracy.
We know, from experience with thousands of students, that these strategies work. They raise scores.
But you will never see score-boosting strategies like these in any official materials from the College Board.
Because it directly contradicts one of their fundamental messages – that the SAT predicts academic achievement and career success.
As the College Board says, "The new test is more focused on the skills and knowledge at the heart of education." (source) It really wants to push the idea that doing well in school is enough to do well on the SAT, which means the SAT measures your pure academic achievement.
So if they EVER suggested that special strategies you DON'T learn in school will improve your score, it will DESTROY this mirage. It will make the test seem like an artificial construct that doesn't predict student success – problem #1 you read about above.
Let's say there's a strategy you learn just for the SAT that has no application in the future, in college or in your career as a doctor or as a lawyer or as a writer. It's only really relevant for the SAT and other standardized tests like it.
Let's say that strategy improves your score a lot. This would mean your SAT score doesn't accurately predict your future success.
This is a BIG problem. This is why College Board will never teach these strategies. And this is also why Khan Academy has none of these strategies. I'll explain this critical weakness below.
Before we move on to a full review of the Khan Academy SAT program, I want to share one final unpleasant implication of this partnership.
You already know that the College Board is competing with the ACT for market share, and that Khan Academy is a critical tool in this competition.If Khan Academy were to develop a similar free prep program for the ACT, it would be a massive blow to College Board's strategy.
That's why Khan Academy will NEVER develop its own ACT program while partnering with College Board.
I'm going to use even stronger language. That's why College Board CONTRACTUALLY PROHIBITED Khan Academy from developing its own ACT program. I'll bet dollars to donuts this is true.
To me, this is unfortunate. 1.9 million students took the ACT in 2015, more than the SAT. If Khan Academy created an ACT program, it would double its impact and help a ton of students.
But it already signed the deal, and it has its hands tied.
Remember what I said above about being cynical? This is one place I'll admit that College Board's strategy builds itself up purely at the expense of students. Because it wants to defeat the ACT, the College Board is willing to place ACT test takers at a disadvantage.
And the College Board knows what it's doing – those disadvantaged ACT test takers will switch to the SAT.
We've covered a lot. Let's summarize the main points:
- College Board is fighting irrelevance. Colleges have big problems with the SAT.
- In response, the College Board implemented a strategy to redesign the SAT and provide a free SAT program with Khan Academy.
- Because Khan Academy SAT is so important to the strategy, College Board needs to control its content and messaging so it doesn't ruin the strategy.
- College Board's control means Khan Academy SAT will never be a complete prep program
With all that in mind, let's look through the Khan Academy SAT program.
Pros and Cons of Khan Academy SAT Program
Pros – Where Khan Academy SAT Works
As I've said, there's a lot to like about Khan Academy's SAT program, and it's a great start for beginner students.
Easy to Use + Clean Design
The first thing you'll notice about Khan Academy is how intuitive it is to use, especially compared to most other online prep programs. The onboarding process introduces you to the program and diagnostic, and the features and lessons are laid out simply. It loads quickly and doesn't have obvious bugs.
This is a credit to their strong product and design team. Based in Silicon Valley right next to Google headquarters, Khan Academy has access to great talent for building web applications. Tech is a core strength of Khan Academy, and it's safe to say College Board wouldn't be able to build anything close to Khan's SAT program.
Organization of Math and Grammar into Skills
One of my most important SAT prep philosophies is to dissect the test into individual skills, figure out which skills you're weak in, and drill those skills with practice. This idea is fundamental to the way I designed our SAT program at PrepScholar (read more in my Perfect SAT Score guide).
Khan's program uses the same philosophy for the Math section and the grammar section of Writing. Each is split up into individual skills that you can train with practice problems. This makes a giant scary section like Math a lot more approachable.
Furthermore, the problems it gives you are customized to your level. Miss more questions, and you'll be dropped a level. Get more questions right, and you'll upgrade your level. We believe in customization at PrepScholar as well, since you grow best when you're challenged at the edge of your ability.
Unfortunately, the Khan SAT program doesn't go far enough in its skill division. As of publication date, the Reading section and the rhetorical skills part of Writing are NOT divided into skills. These are important sections, and I'll explain more below.
Plugin with PSAT Scores
This is the coolest part of Khan Academy's official partnership with the College Board. If you've taken the PSAT, you can connect your College Board account to Khan Academy, which will automatically pull in your test results and customize your prep program. This will add accuracy to your diagnostic and lower the friction to getting started.
It's likely that only Khan Academy will have access to this cool feature. College Board doesn't currently allow any other company to connect to their databases and pull student data. Khan Academy has special access because of their official partnership, and giving any other company this access would lessen their competitive advantage.
While this feature currently only works with PSAT results, I'm confident in the future Khan Academy will allow you to plug in your SAT results as well.
Now, this isn't going to revolutionize your prep or significantly improve the quality of the program. The diagnostic is already mostly good enough. Typically the diagnostic will be even better, as it gives you a broader range of questions and tests your skill right at that moment, not 11 months ago when you took the PSAT.
But it still lowers the barrier to people getting started with SAT prep, and that's a good thing.
A Lot of Practice Questions, College-Board Approved
The last major thing Khan Academy has going for it is a lot of practice questions – over 2,000 as of this writing. As of writing, they have 954 Math questions and 1545 Writing questions, but only 242 Reading questions. So Reading is a major weakness in their content availability right now.
Even better, these were reviewed by College Board writers to be accurate. They describe:
The College Board works closely with Khan Academy staff at all stages of content creation to ensure that the test questions you see on the Khan Academy website are the same types of questions you will see on the actual SAT. Content writers from Khan Academy collaborate with the writing staff at College Board, who revise multiple drafts of their works."
Important note: this cuts both ways. Remember what I said about College Board controlling Khan Academy's program? You can see it here: College Board "revises multiple drafts of their works." AKA "doesn't allow anything to get published that they don't like." You'll see why this is a problem below.
At PrepScholar, we believe that a lot of practice is important, which is why we're aiming to create 8,000 practice questions for both our SAT and ACT products. To improve our quality, we've also broken down the SAT like I've no other company do (see our Ultimate Reading, Math, and Writing guides).
So far, so good. Khan Academy is easy to use, has a lot of practice questions, and lets you train specific skills in math and grammar.
On the surface, this sounds great. But if you dig deeper, you'll notice the major problems with the Khan SAT program as it exists today.
Cons – Where Khan Academy SAT is Weak
As I've explained above, the official partnership between College Board and Khan Academy means the College Board has strong control over how the SAT program works. You can imagine College Board telling Khan Academy, "if we're going to put our name on this, it needs to represent how we think, and we need to be able to review everything in the program before it goes out."
You can see this right above: "content writers from Khan Academy collaborate with the writing staff at College Board, who revise multiple drafts of their works."
This is both a blessing and a curse. The blessing is that the test questions likely will be higher quality and look close to real SAT questions.
The curse is that the content HAS to conform to College Board's philosophy, or it won't get published. This extends to everything in the program – how you should get the right answer, how skills are taught, strategies to get a higher score, and more.
The result is that Khan Academy's SAT program is how the COLLEGE BOARD wants you to prep. This is NOT usually the best way you should prep to get the highest score possible! This is an important distinction.
Remember that the College Board has its own agenda – it wants to prove that the SAT tests what you learn in school and skills that are useful for career. It doesn't want to teach you the exact ways you can raise your SAT score in ways that don't align with College Board philosophy.
This is where the biggest failures arise. I'll explain each in detail next. Even worse, while the partnership lasts, it's unlikely many of these problems will be fixed.
Con #1 – No SAT Test Strategies
This is the major problem with Khan Academy's SAT program. At PrepScholar, we know that test-taking strategy is essential to scoring your highest score possible. Strategies like:
- skipping the hardest questions to focus on the easier questions you're more likely to get right
- how to attack SAT Reading passages most effectively to save time
- predicting how the SAT tries to trap you into wrong answer choices
- alternative strategies to get the right answer for math questions, even if you don't know how to solve them
We teach strategies like this in our SAT prep program. If you're like most students, understanding these strategies will raise your score. We've seen this with thousands of students.
You'll never find strategies like these on Khan Academy.
The reason is fundamental – these strategies apply primarily in artificial testing environments like the SAT, and these strategies exist primarily to raise your SAT score. They aren't that helpful for success in college and in your future career.
If the College Board admitted strategies like these existed, they'd also have to admit that the SAT doesn't test pure academic skill - Problem #1 above. They want to maintain that the SAT is all about testing purely what you learned in school. So they'll never allow teaching of these strategies.
This is unfortunate, because I bet Sal Khan and the Khan Academy staff know a bunch of useful test strategies they used themselves to excel on the SAT. But they're not allowed to share them.
As one example, here's an example of Sal Khan breaking down a Reading passage. In this video, he reads the passage slowly, breaking it down line by line. He wants to make sure you understand every single sentence and how it fits into the passage.
In our testing philosophy at PrepScholar, we believe this is the absolute wrong approach to SAT Reading passages. You don't have to understand every line in a passage in detail, and it's a waste of time to do so.
Simply put, the reason is that there are only 11 questions per passage, which leaves a ton of details in the passage you just don't have to understand. In fact, this method of detailed reading is why so many students run out of time in the SAT Reading section – they just spend too much time trying to understand every detail.
If a student read the passage like Sal Khan does in this video, she'd be at a serious disadvantage, compared to someone who knows better test taking strategies geared to the SAT.
Instead, we advise all our students, especially those scoring below a 700, to skim the passage for light understanding, then use the questions to hone in on parts of the passage that are actually important.
College Board would NEVER want to teach a strategy like this, because it's too specific to this test. In your future, when you write an English essay in college or prepare a report in your job, you won't use this strategy – instead, you WILL read the material line by line, extracting every detail and leaving no stone unturned.
This is just one of many examples of strategies that Khan Academy is lacking. This is my major gripe with the program, and for the reasons above, I doubt they will ever truly fix this in their program. The College Board is just too strongly tied to the Khan SAT program.
Con #2 – Insufficient Lessons
I believe that when you're weak in a skill, engaging with a detailed lesson helps you learn the fundamental content and strategies in a structured way. If you're weak in algebra equations, for example, it'd help to learn the basics of how to isolate x on one side of the equation, to see a range of real SAT questions, and to learn alternative strategies for solving equations. Here's one of many example lessons we've published for free.
Khan Academy SAT doesn't have full-fledged lessons like these. Instead, for most skills they feature just example problems worked out. Here's an example for solving linear equations, where Sal Khan works through a sample question:
While it's somewhat helpful to see one question worked out, it doesn't go far enough. Most students won't be able to teach themselves strategies from just one example. It's not that easy to extract the general principles from a single question.
It's odd for Khan Academy to ignore this, because the rest of Khan Academy is based on this fundamental skill learning. Check out their main Algebra program as an example.
So if they believe these fundamental lessons are useful, why didn't they do it for the SAT? Here are a few plausible reasons:
- they just didn't have time to make high quality lessons
- they felt fundamental skills learning was too distracting from SAT prep. Learning algebra fundamentally might take hours, so maybe it's more effective to just focus on doing practice SAT questions. However, the SAT is supposed to be all about fundamental skills, so this doesn't seem consistent.
- the College Board controlled Khan Academy's lessons to focus on question solving rather than teaching. Maybe it was too hard to agree on how to teach the fundamental skills, or Khan Academy wanted to teach too much test strategy.
If it's the last option, then it's unlikely Khan Academy will ever fix this problem because it's baked into their partnership.
This brings us to a related weakness of Khan Academy SAT…
Con #3 – Doesn't Integrate with the Rest of Khan Academy
A natural solution to weak SAT lessons is to integrate the main Khan Academy program, which is excellent and features hundreds (if not thousands) of hours of instruction. For example, for algebra I would love to see them link to the main Khan Academy algebra lesson, which has great fundamental content.
They don't, however. Aside from the header at the top of the page, it's hard to tell that any other Khan Academy program exists. There aren't any links from the SAT program to the main Khan Academy program.
Once again, it's possible College Board forbade Khan Academy from more tightly integrating the two products. There's too much of a chance the other Khan Academy programs contain messages that the College Board doesn't agree with – and so it's safer just to prohibit it altogether.
This is a big loss, since most of Khan Academy is excellent. Granted, it's not focused on the SAT, so it's not likely the most efficient way to study. But it'd still be a big help for someone who wants more detailed help on skills.
Then again, it's possible Khan Academy just doesn't think this is a good idea, or it didn't have enough time to implement this. On a variant of Hanlon's razor, I might say, "never assume bad intentions when lack of time is explanation enough."
Con #4 – Bad Skill Splits for Reading and Writing
I mentioned above in the Pros that Khan Academy SAT did a good job splitting up Math into individual skills. This makes training your weaknesses a lot easier.
They really missed the mark on the Reading section and the rhetorical skills section of Writing.
For Reading, for example, they separate the training by the subject matter of the passage:
I find this a completely unhelpful classification. You don't approach literature passages differently from history passages. In fact, they contain very similar types of questions.
At PrepScholar, we use a more useful classification of Reading skills:
- Big Picture
- Reading Closely
- Words and Phrases in Context
- Citing Textual Evidence
- Analyzing Word Choice
- Analyzing Text Structure
- Analyzing Multiple Texts
- Analyzing Quantitative Information
These skills are defined by the type of question and the actual reasoning you would use to answer it. Just like how a geometry question should be approached differently from an algebra question, an Inferences question is very different from a "Words in Context" question.
Similarly, for Writing, some of their non-grammatical skills - what the SAT calls "expression of ideas" and what we call "rhetorical skills" - are divided poorly. This is a problem because rhetorical skills make up the majority (55%) of the Writing section.
Here, Khan Academy breaks down into the type of passage once again:
At PrepScholar, we classify them like this:
- Logical sequence
Because the College Board defines individual skills themselves, I imagine this problem is mainly a time limitation. It's possible Khan Academy will fix this in the future.
Con #5 - Weak, Unhelpful Question Explanations
In our experience, when a student misses a question, they need coaching from "first principle" – what is EVERY logical step from when you first read the question to the last step of getting the right answer?
In contrast, most test prep companies use simple answer explanations. They'll explain why each answer choice is correct or incorrect, but they won't explain the logical steps starting from when you first read the question and make sense of it.
Unfortunately, Khan Academy uses the simple answer explanation for most of their questions. They'll explain why a correct answer choice is correct and a wrong answer choice is wrong, but often this isn't helpful to figuring out where you actually made the mistake.
Here's an example question from Khan Academy:
This explanation is super unhelpful to someone who misses the question.
Answers A-C, which are all incorrect, are all explained in an unhelpful way. Each of the answer explanations can be paraphrased as, "the author doesn't say this," which is another way of saying, "the answer is wrong because it's wrong." If you missed this question, these answer explanations wouldn't help you get to the right answer.
Answer D, which is correct, has an explanation that basically paraphrases the answer choice. In other words, it's saying "the answer choice is correct because it's correct."
If you actually missed this question, these answer choices don't really help you figure out WHY you missed the question and HOW to repair this in the future.
In contrast, at PrepScholar we believe in attacking explanations from first principle. Here's an example explanation for this question:
The question is asking for the central claim of the passage, so we're looking for the author's main point. As you've read before in our strategies, you should come up with an answer in your mind before reading the answer choices and getting biased.
As you skim the passage, you should get a sense of Ben Franklin's main points. Here's the main point of each paragraph:
- people tend to think they're infallible, or perfectly right in their beliefs. I'm old and I know better.
- even though the Constitution is flawed, we need to pass it because this country needs one. We won't be able to make a better one because we all have our own opinions.
- I don't believe we can come up with a better Constitution, and promoting the faults of the Constitution is going to weaken our nation. We all need to approve this unaninmously, go back to our constituents, and promote the Constitution in solidarity.
So, without looking at the answer choices, the central claim is something like, "we need to pass the Constitution now because we can't create a better one, and we need to be unified."
With that in mind, let's go through the answer choices and see what we can eliminate and why.
A. "the Constitution will have to suffice until it is proven to be inadequate."
This is negative in tone and implies that the Constitution may fail at some point. Franklin never goes this far into the future. He's focused on the now – the Constitution can't be improved any further now, and we need to pass it. This is incorrect.
B. "the objections to the Constitution are trivial and should be disregarded by the Assembly."
The key problem here is "trivial," or unimportant. Franklin never dismisses the objections of his colleagues to be unimportant. In fact, he has his own objections: "I agree to this Constitution with all its faults, if they are such" (lines 19-20). His key point is that DESPITE the faults, the Constitution is as good as it will be, and they need to pass it. Thus B is incorrect and a classic example of an answer choice being wrong because of a single word – in this case, "trivial."
C. "the objections to the Constitution can be dismissed unless they are unanimous."
This seems tempting because it uses an important word from the passage: "unanimous." This is a classic wrong answer trap for students who don't read closely and grasp for answer choices that seem familiar.
But in the passage, Franklin uses unanimous to assert that the Assembly should be united. He doesn't say that objections can still apply if they are unanimous. He doesn't suggest any situation in which the Constitution should be dismissed at all – he wants to push this thing through, today. So C is incorrect.
D. "the Constitution is adequate and should be passed without objection."
We've ruled out A-C up to this point, so hopefully D fits. And it does – it matches our central claim when reading the passage. Franklin strongly states that he doubts "whether any other Convention we can obtain may be able to make a better Constitution" (lines 27-28). He then suggests, "we shall act heartily and unanimously in recommending this Constitution" (lines 52-53). This is the best answer choice.
If you got this question wrong, compare your thought process to this explanation. Where did you go wrong? Did you misinterpret the passage? Did you get tricked by one of the wrong answer choices? Did you mistakenly find something wrong with choice D?
Step through your reasoning to find where you can improve for the future.
In our opinion, this is a complete explanation. It guides the student step-by-step through solving the question. It discusses what the question is expecting from first reading, what kind of answer the student should be formulating, whether to rule each answer choice in or out, and settling on a final answer. Importantly, it also tells the student specifically why a wrong answer choice is wrong, and how it fits into a pattern of wrong answer choices. It then steps the student through analyzing her own mistakes to learn for the future.
Granted, it's a lot more expensive for us to produce, since it takes a lot of time to write and we hire only people who have truly mastered the test. But we view every question as a learning opportunity. If you miss a question, you NEED to understand how to solve the question from first reading.
Khan Academy doesn't have full explanations. It's possible College Board requested that they write simple, dumbed-down explanations – after all, their official SAT Study guide worked exactly like this. But it's also possible Khan Academy doesn't have the time to write better explanations.
Con #6 - No Essay Feedback
This is a simple drawback – with Khan Academy, you can't submit your essays for grading. They'll ask you to score your own essay using the standard rubric.
There are two reasons for this:
- automated computer graders are bad. The worst ones use simple algorithms based on easy-to-cheat metrics like sentence length and word size. You can get a high score for writing a gibberish essay. It's possible to build a better automated grader based on machine learning, and Khan Academy is well equipped to do this, but it's not easy and will take time to get it right.
- human graders are expensive. Since Khan Academy SAT is a free program, they can't afford to hire human graders to grade thousands of essays each month.
To improve your essay score, it's important to understand your weaknesses and practice writing to overcome them. You can certainly teach this to yourself, using guides like ours.
At PrepScholar we've built in expert essay grading as part of our program. You'll get customized feedback on how your essay can improve with examples to follow. We've had a lot of success improving essay scores with this model. It's more expensive for us to provide, we believe in the results.
Con #7 - A Host of Smaller Problems
In using Khan Academy, there are a bunch of other problems that make the experience unpleasant or ineffective. To prevent this guide from getting even longer, I won't write a detailed section for each, but here are the gists:
Most Sections are Untimed
In Khan Academy SAT, most of the quizzes are untimed. You have an infinite amount of time to work on each question or passage. The only exceptions are preset timed quizzes and full-length practice tests.
I get what they're doing – they want you to focus on building your fundamental skills first, then get faster as you get more competent.
Personally, I don't agree with this approach. Timing is a constant threat in the SAT. While building fundamental skills is important, by giving yourself infinite time all the time, you develop bad habits. In fact, time management is one of the biggest and most common problems facing SAT test takers.
Take the Reading section as an example. There are 65 minutes, 5 passages, and 52 questions. This roughly means you need to get through 1 passage and its 10-11 questions within 12 minutes. We recommend that students spend no more than 5 minutes skimming the passage to get a brief understanding, then taking 40-60 seconds per question.
Without time pressure, you might practice taking 10 minutes to read the passage, as Sal Khan does in his training videos. On the real test, this would leave you with barely any time to answer the questions.
The result, I'm afraid, is that many students will be surprised by the time pressures of the test and have no idea how to deal with it – because due to Con #1, College Board will NOT support test-taking strategies on time management.
Can't Review Previous Questions
When I finished a quiz or a set of questions, I couldn't find a way to review those questions after exiting. I'd like a way to see my previously missed questions to review them and learn from my mistakes.
It Erroneously Emphasizes All Skills Equally
On Khan Academy, all skills are more or less treated equally. For example, all 40+ skills in the Math section have about 20 questions associated with them, so you'd spend equal time working on all the skills.
We know, however, there are MASSIVE imbalances in how important skills are. At the extreme, "solving single variable equations" takes up 12.5% of the test, and "function notation" takes up just 0.43% of the test. This is a massive 30x difference in importance, but you wouldn't know it from Khan Academy.
This can mean students using Khan Academy emphasize the wrong skills and waste a lot of time studying things that aren't important. But College Board is unlikely to change this, since it would appear too much as "teaching to the test" rather than learning important fundamental skills.
Con #8 - Khan Academy is Spread Thin
Here's the final con, which isn't strictly a problem with the program but does suggest problems about its growth moving forward.
Khan Academy is a really important organization with a big impact. It has dozens of subjects to teach like computer programming, is building partnerships with institutions like the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and has an exciting vision to provide free education worldwide.
The SAT is just a small component of what Khan Academy does.
As a result, I doubt they have enough manpower to build the product to its full potential. This means problems will take longer to resolve, and even possibly that the product loses steam if the partnership fades.
Furthermore, given that Khan Academy relies primarily on donors to fund itself, I wouldn't be surprised if they downplayed the SAT product's importance in their organizational reports. Standardized testing has gotten more controversial (see College Board's 3 Big Problems above), and it'd be odd for Khan Academy to come out in favor of more testing. Otherwise donors might think, "wait, I'm giving you millions of dollars so you can help College Board perpetuate standardized testing??"
I Wish Things Were Different
All told, I really admire Khan's mission to provide free education, and I respect College Board for taking a step in the right direction. It's an improvement over the old situation, where you had to buy a $25 book just to get access to 10 practice tests.
However, this product is not enough to achieve College Board's goals. The way the program works now, students who seek better prep programs will be able to achieve higher scores. There will still be an achievement gap between people who prep for the test intelligently, and people who don't.
In this partnership, I think Khan Academy got the short end of the stick. College Board needed Khan Academy more than Khan Academy needed College Board.
Without Khan Academy, College Board wouldn't be able to put out a good product. They just don't have the technical talent to build something good. And without a good free product, College Board's strategy would be crippled.
But in my opinion, Khan Academy didn't need College Board all that much. Khan Academy already had a strong school presence because of its main program. If they'd produced an SAT program independently, they would have a ton of eager users. Moreover, without the College Board partnership, they could have built an ACT program and reached double the students. They'd also have much more control over how the SAT program works, which means more test strategy and better content.
This is unfortunate because Khan Academy is all about social impact, and I believe they reduced their impact dramatically through this partnership. I wonder if they feel the same way.
In case you want to review any part of this article, here's a set of quick links:
- What is Khan Academy?
- College Board's 3 Giant Problems
- The College Board's Grand Strategy
- Why Does the Strategy Matter for Khan Academy SAT?
- College Board's Stances Will Hurt You
- Pros and Cons of Khan Academy SAT
- Con #1: No SAT Test Strategies
- Con #2: Insufficient Lessons
- Con #3: Doesn't Integrate with the Rest of Khan Academy
- Con #4: Bad Skill Splits for Reading and Writing
- Con #5: Weak, Unhelpful Question Explanations
- Con #6: No Essay Feedback
- Con #7: A Host of Smaller Problems
- Con #8: Khan Academy is Spread Thin
What Does All This Mean For You?
I know we've covered a lot. We've discussed the College Board's major problems, its strategy involving Khan Academy, and the major strengths and weaknesses of Khan Academy's SAT program.
So should you use Khan Academy SAT to study? I think it's great for a few types of students:
- if you're new to the SAT and want an introduction to the test
- if you plan to study around 10 hours for the SAT, and aren't that interested in improving your score to its fullest potential
- if you're a self-motivated studier, and all you need are math and grammar questions split up by skill
In contrast, if you care a lot about your score, are willing to work hard, and want to improve your SAT score to the highest possible, then Khan Academy won't be enough for you. If you just trust Khan Academy to do all the work for you, you'll be at a huge disadvantage compared to other test takers.
So what should you do?
First, it helps to know what you're missing. If you liked this article, you'll enjoy some of our best guides:
- How to Get a Perfect SAT Score, by a Perfect Scorer
- How to Get an 800 in:
- What's a Good SAT Score?
Next, you need to decide how you're going to study. As I always say, you do NOT need an SAT prep program to do well on the test. If you're self motivated and love studying by books, check out my recommendation for Best SAT Prep Books.
But if you want an all-in-one program that customizes to your learning, teaches you test strategy, and packages everything into a great learning experience, I still believe PrepScholar is the best prep program available. Check us out here:
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As co-founder and head of product design at PrepScholar, Allen has guided thousands of students to success in SAT/ACT prep and college admissions. He's committed to providing the highest quality resources to help you succeed. Allen graduated from Harvard University summa cum laude and earned two perfect scores on the SAT (1600 in 2004, and 2400 in 2014) and a perfect score on the ACT.