Debate Participation as the Ultimate SAT Test Prep

Stefan Bauschard

The SAT Redesign


The new Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) that will shifts the focus of the SAT away from testing rote memorization of obscure vocabulary words and the assessment of “abstract reasoning skills” to “evidence-based reading, writing and mathematical skills acquired in high school” (Wall Street Journal).

The SAT assessment will make this shift by testing students’ ability to understand relevant words in context, to marshal evidence in support of a claim, to test the evidence used in support of a claim, and to write an optional essay relying on an analysis of a source document. The Chronicle of Higher Education explains, “the next incarnation of the SAT will require students to think harder, analyze more, and anchor their answers to evidence.”

These are the same skills the new Common Core standards that have been adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia seek to promote. The alignment between the new SAT and the Common Core is detailed in Education Week and has been the goal of the College Board ever since the Common Core standards were finalized.

The first students to take the new SAT will be those who are tested in the spring of 2016. They will be able to take the test in paper form or on the computer and will have three sections: Evidence-Based Reading and Writing, Math, and the optional Essay. The Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section and the Math section will each be scored on a 200- to 800-point scale. Scores for the Essay will be reported separately (College Board).

The changes are designed to reduce the value of test prep and to provide a more accurate assessment of skills that students will need to be “college and career ready.”

Debate’s Role in the Development of the Test

dcFor those involved with competitive academic debate teams it comes as no surprise that the changes to the SAT occurred under the leadership of David Coleman, President of the College Board which administers the test.

David,  a finalist (top 2) at the prestigious Tournament of Champions held each year at the University of Kentucky, was a champion debater for Stuyvesant High School in New York.  In a New York Times interview, he remarked, “Debate…is one of the few activities in which you can be “needlessly argumentative and it advances you.”

David Coleman was also a driving force behind the new Common Core standards.

SAT Assessments

The skill set of a debater is assessed throughout the new test. The evidence-based reading and writing section, which will make up one-half of an individual’s potential 1600 score, will be designed to assess many core debate skills.

Command of Evidence


When students take the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the redesigned SAT, they’ll be asked to demonstrate their ability to interpret, synthesize, and use evidence found in a wide range of sources. These are all core debating skills that competitors will hone and eventually master through participating in competitive academic debate.

Use evidence found in a wide range of sources.  Students who participate in academic debate will have extensive experience with using evidence found in a variety of sources.

The amount of work necessary to develop and defend a basic Affirmative “case” in both high school and college Policy debate has been compared to the research a Master’s students would need to do to prepare and defend a thesis (Ingalls, Z, 1985). This research will be produced from a wide range of sources.

A wide range of sources includes both quality and type. For example, when researching the topic of global climate change this year, my debaters read articles from Science magazine, an advocacy website focused on motivating action to address climate change, a popular newswire, a blog written by a qualified individual, an academic journal, a law review, a book, and a relatively unqualified blog.

All of this evidence constitutes quotes (or passages in the language of the new SAT) that support the test answers (or arguments in the language of debate).  Inside debates, debaters must cite evidence from passages to support their arguments in same way that SAT takers need to cite passages to support their response to questions.

Interpret.   Interpreting evidence requires drawing logical conclusions from the presented data, analyzing whether or not evidence supports a certain hypothesis, looking at what the evidence suggests, and drawing conclusions from the evidence.


Debaters are required to interpret the evidence they present in order to use it to support arguments advanced in debates. In academic debate, the most frequent form of evidence is a direct quotation from one of the sources introduced into the debate. Once debaters present the evidence in the debates, they must defend that it supports the claim that they made using the evidence (Baltimore Urban Debate League). In this way, debaters are constantly interpreting evidence in preparation before their debates, challenging their opponents’ interpretation of evidence, and often reinterpreting evidence to support different points made throughout the debates.  The Baltimore Urban Debate League explains that debaters should:

  • Interpret evidence from within and (primarily) outside of the evidence packet to determine the best ways it supports both negative and affirmative speeches
  • Incorporate the most relevant evidence from within and (primarily) outside of the evidence packet to support both negative and affirmative speeches
  • Determine many weaknesses in negative and affirmative speeches and prepare blocks (refutation and turn)
  • Collect, interpret, and incorporate evidence to improve arguments, cross-examination, and rebuttals based on judge’s ballot and debate rounds

Reflecting on her own experience in debate, Breanne Harris writes, “(W)e started by researching everything we could about the main topic…We looked for evidence that would prove the affirmative and evidence that would support the negative.  We had to ask questions about what we read like “What does this mean?”  ”What do the experts say?”  ”What is missing from this argument?” She adds,  “High school debate taught me to be a critical listener… You have to be able to parse out the fact from the opinion in a sentence.  For example, “XYZ Company’s Q4 earnings rose by 7%, so they are having a good year.”  There is a mixture of both fact and opinion in that sentence.  Breaking down the structure of sentences and arguments in order to separate fact from opinion has become a key critical thinking and business skill I still use today.”

Alice Lavreigne notes that debaters must be able to respond to arguments with answers that have a “basis in fact” and have evidence from “good sources.”

Synthesize. Synthesis occurs at many different points during the debate.

Before the debate even starts, debaters must synthesize evidence and arguments from a variety of sources to construct their own unique argument in favor of the resolution, which is also referred to as the proposition.

During the debate, debaters must present a synthesized set of arguments that are all internally consistent. If debaters present contradictory arguments, it will lower their ethos and allow their opponents to concede one argument to answer one of their other contradictory arguments. Since in most debate events students debate with one or more partners in a single debate, they must also synthesize their arguments to maintain consistency amongst themselves. And in their rebuttals, debaters must select a consistent set of arguments that approves or disproves the overall value of the proposition being advocated. Finally, the very best debaters will be able to argue that their opponents’ arguments are not necessarily reasons to vote for their opponents but can be rectified to be consistent with their own arguments. The competitive structure of debate rewards synthesis in many ways.

Many individuals offer research-based evidence about the value of debate in teaching synthesis.

Dr. Joe Bellon explains that debate students are “taught to synthesize wide bodies of complex information, and to exercise creativity and implement different ways of knowing.” Referencing Harrigan (2008), Zwarenstyn explains,  “Submitting arguments for a debate surmounts to their dissection – exposing arguments to their assumptions, representations, framing, inferences, and consequences is the ultimate intellectual rigor of any given argument.” Another former participant noted that participation in debate was exciting because of “the complex strategy involved in presenting arguments convincingly, in understanding how they interact, in knowing when to make the right argument and when to remain cautious.”

The Home School Association also identifies many of the benefits of debate participation: “To argue requires students to: research issues, organize and analyze data, synthesize different kinds of data, evaluate the conclusion drawn from the data, understand how to reason the conclusions, recognize and critique different methods of reason, and comprehend the logic of decision making.”

Serious debate participants will likely read thousands (Harris) of different sources in their hunt for evidence that they will need to both analyze and synthesize during their preparation for their debates. In the debates themselves, they will likely have delivered hundreds of speeches where both their evidence and their opponent’s evidence was further analyzed and all arguments critiqued and synthesized.

Words in context

The evidence-based reading and writing section will also test students’ ability to understand the meaning of vocabulary words based on the context that those words appear in.  Currently, the SAT focuses on students knowing the meaning of obscure words such as “mendicancy, lachrymose, calumny, exigent, garrulous”(The Bates Student), but “these obscure words will be replaced with words like “synthesis” and “empirical;” words that are frequently used in the classroom and in the workplace. (Sacramento Bee).

Anyone with a background in academic debate knows that the words “empirical” and “synthesis” are two of the most frequently used words in debate. The Dallas Urban Debate Alliance’s evidence sets are carefully planned…to introduce a wide variety of vocabulary. “

Carol Winkler (2011) points out how “After-school debate programs, steeped in a repetitive focus on oral reading activities and coupled with a series of competitions against other students from other schools, provide below- grade-level readers a low-risk way to improve vocabulary, increase fluency, and enhance reading comprehension.”


Although it is now an option on the new SAT, students who choose to write the essay will, after reading a passage, need to “explain how the author builds an argument…, support(ing) their claims with evidence from the passage..that will persuade an audience.” (College Board)

The Sacramento Bee explains, “Students who choose to write the essay will have 50 minutes to analyze evidence and demonstrate their abilities to craft an argument.” The Chronicle of Higher Education adds that the “(essay) prompt might ask, has the author built a persuasive argument? Responses will be scored on the strength of the analysis as well as the coherence of the writing. In short, students will no longer be able to get by writing about their personal experiences.”

Analyzing evidence and crafting arguments that will persuade an audience is the trade of debaters. Previous debate participants note that participation in debate strengthened their ability to write essays. Alice Lavreigne remarks that “students are responsible for writing their own speeches based on whatever research they have done, so students must learn to write persuasively and concisely—they only have a certain amount of time to state their position and back it up with as many facts as they can.” Breanne Harris writes, “high school debate taught me how to structure an argument. To this day, I go back to these basics. You start by stating the topic. Define the premise, present and interpret evidence, and draw a conclusion. “

Dr. Briana Mezuk, who conducted a study of participants in the Chicago Debate League writes, “In practical terms, the activity of policy debate is characterized by the training of six academic skills: (1) reading and interpreting complex non-fiction text, (2) developing and writing arguments based on these texts, (3) verbally expressing and defending evidence-based claims, (4) listening to and interpreting opponents’ arguments, (5) collaborating with peers, and (6) time- management (Mitchell 1998). Policy debate involves the practice of “secondary literacy” skills including comprehension and interpretation of arguments from non-fiction (informational) texts.

And the Home School Association explains the benefits of debate participation in terms of improved writing ability, noting that, “Debate students excel in written and oral communication, and greatly improve their reading comprehension (sometimes 25% more than their peers… This researching, writing, and arguing ability will carry over to many other fields such as preparing research and background papers and answering essay questions on exams.),” (citing Catterall,, James S. “Essay: Research on Drama and  Theatre Education.” In Richard Deasy, ed.  Critical Links: Learning  in the Arts and Student Academic and Social Development).


Focused on English Language Arts training, academic debate inherently offers substantially less preparation for the Math portion of the test, which will be heavily focused on assessing algebra skills needed to learn calculus. The new SAT will, however, assesses data analysis skills that can be improved with debate participation, because debaters need to analyze and assess the quality of data when making arguments.


Many of the elements of debate participation and instruction are likely to support the development of skills that students need to do well on the new SAT test. Although it is too early to offer direct empirical proof for this claim, there has been high quality research (Mezuk, 2011) that supports the claim that students who participate in academic debate score higher on the Reading & English sections of the ACT, which some say the new SAT aims to align with (Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic) with, than academically similar students who do not participate in the debate.

The primary finding from this study is that even after accounting for the influence of self-selection, students who participated in the CDL were more likely to graduate from high school, performed better on the ACT, and showed greater gains in cumulative GPA relative to similar comparison students. Debate participation was associated with significantly better scores on all four components of the ACT, particularly the Reading and English sections. On average, participation was associated with an additional 1.02 additional points on the Reading and 1.04 additional points on the English sections of the ACT relative to not participation. The ACT suggests that an improvement of 0.50 points is considered “practically important” (ACT , 2006). Students who participated in debate were also more likely to reach the college-readiness benchmarks on all four sections of the test relative to similar students. These results are consistent with the interpretation that participating in debate is associated with statistically significant and substantially meaningful academic performance on the ACT. The relationship between debate participation and ACT performance is particularly relevant in light of the new Common Core Standards, national guidelines that are intended to produce consistent, college-ready high school standards across the fifty states (Council of Chief State School Officials and National Governors’ Association. 2009). The Common Core Standards for English and Language Arts focus on evidence-based argument and informational text mastery as critical language arts skills. As an example, the first Writing standard for grades 9-10 states “Write arguments to support claims in an analysis of substantive topics or texts, using valid reasoning and relevant and sufficient evidence” (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices, 2010).

This conclusion is not surprising. Debaters who are likely to read more than 1,000 original sources, who are tirelessly searching for evidence that supports and refutes conclusions, who are actively pointing out weaknesses in evidence, and who are constantly synthesizing evidence and ideas before and during debates, and who come across hundreds of vocabulary words in context that they need to understand are nearly certain to develop the skills they need to record high scores on the redesigned SAT. And more importantly, debate participation as test prep will make them college and career ready.