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Second Admissions Test For Private Schools Set

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The field of private-school admission testing, long dominated by one major testing organization, is about to become competitive.

Next fall, a rival test-maker is scheduled to begin offering an exam it says will provide more detailed information about students' abilities.

The Educational Records Bureau, a Wellesley, Mass., research and subject-matter testing group for private schools and suburban public schools, will jump into the admission market with an exam promising a better candidate profile, a timed essay, and a 72-hour turn-around time on test scores, among other features.

For decades, the Secondary School Admission Test Board, the Princeton, N.J., publisher of the Secondary School Admission Test, has dominated the field. The s.s.a.t. is taken by 45,000 students annually.

The board is also working on its test, revising it to provide more information, including a prediction of what a student's score on college-admission tests will be. The new s.s.a.t. has been in the works for six years, officials said, and is not in response to the competition from erb

"We will go head to head with the s.s.a.t.," said A. Emerson Johnson 3rd, president of the Wellesley organization. "Two instruments in the field mean we are going to have to be better."

"I don't mind the competition," countered Regan Kenyon, executive director of the s.s.a.t.b. "But what they do I don't think is going to come even close to our [new test]."

Mr. Johnson and other e.r.b. officials described the new test, called the Independent School Entrance Examination, at a meeting of admission officers and researchers late last month in New York City. But neither organization has released a sample test.

Admissions experts last week hailed what they said was healthy competition in the field, but many expressed concern that the existence of two tests could cause confusion among admission officers, prospective students, and parents.

"The competition will make both tests better, but our worry is the issue of access to schools, especially for families that have no independent-school experience," said Heidi A. Rowe, director of admission services for the National Association of Independent Schools. The association is urging its 900 member schools to accept results from both tests.

After an initial period of confusion, Ms. Rowe predicted, secondary-school admission testing will resemble the college admission-testing field, in which the Scholastic Aptitude Test competes with the American College Testing program.

The e.r.b. hopes to sell the test to its own members, as well as to what Mr. Johnson called "the vast untapped market" of schools that do not use admission tests.

About half of all private secondary schools require a test for admission, according to a 1987 study by the U.S. Education Department.

The 61-year-old e.r.b. is a nonprofit association of about 850 independent schools, 200 suburban public schools, and 100 international schools that specializes in achieve4ment testing. For many years, it has contracted with the Princeton-based organization to administer the s.s.a.t. to about 4,500 students a year in Boston, Philadelphia, and New York City.

Last October, the contract was not renewed "for a whole variety of reasons," Mr. Johnson said, including disagreement over the e.r.b.'s plans to expand its use of the test to other locations. When the contract was not renewed, the erb decided to develop its own admission test.

The two groups had entered into negotiations for a merger two years ago, but those talks also broke down.

The s.s.a.t.b. was formed 31 years ago by several independent boarding schools to create a common entrance examination. The group now has 620 member schools, and 30 member consultants or organizations.

Both organizations are trying to address recent criticism by admissions officers that entrance exams should provide more information than a raw score of academic ability.

Matching students with the right type of school, placing them in appropriate courses, and finding out how they can best be taught are areas where admissions officers say more information is needed. Both groups say their new tests also may help alleviate gender and racial biases.

"We needed to have some sort of admission testing that would be useful on a variety of fronts for recognizing the strengths and weaknesses of a child," said Meade B. Thayer, director of admissions and financial aid at Friends' Central School in Philadelphia and a member of an advisory panel for the e.r.b.

The Independent School Entrance Examination, developed by the Educational Testing Service for the e.r.b., will evaluate verbal and mathematical aptitude, reading comprehension, the ability to read social studies and science materials, math comprehension, and essay-writing competence.

"Schools told us they wanted to see an essay written under supervision," Mr. Johnson said.

In addition, the test results will report what the e.r.b. calls "learning style"--an analysis of the questions the student skipped, missed, or answered correctly.

"It's more diagnostic," said Alice J. Irby, vice president of e.t.s. and in charge of developing the test. "It may lead you to look further, to talk to teachers."

Mr. Johnson estimated that 15,000 students will take the i.s.e.e. next fall.

The revamped s.s.a.t., also scheduled to be available next fall, will have a more detailed breakdown of achievement, Mr. Kenyon said. Results will be available after 10 days, and in some cases, within 48 hours.

The new s.s.a.t. also will provide what Mr. Kenyon called "a breakthrough in consumer advocacy," by predicting in the 7th grade the score a student is likely to receive on the s.a.t. in the 12th grade. The feature will alleviate test anxiety and give students five years to work on problem areas, Mr. Kenyon said.

The new s.s.a.t. does not include a written essay because it would not increase the ability of the test to predict the future success of students, Mr. Kenyon said. "It would just lengthen the time of the test," he said.

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