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Jittery Students Are Put to Test With New S.A.T.

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The rumor at Shalini Daswani's Springfield, Va., high school was that the newly revised version of the S.A.T. would require students to write an essay.

Let that rumor be put to rest here: There will be no essay.

There will, however, be other changes when an estimated 200,000 students nationwide sit down Saturday for the first administration of the revamped and renamed college-entrance exam.

The modifications, brought about to reflect changing classroom practice, are arguably minor. Nevertheless, they appear to have prompted some pretest anxiety in students.

Educators, students, and officials of test-preparation companies say rumors suggesting that the new test consists entirely of open-ended questions or that an essay is included have been circulating in schools.

And students such as Ms. Daswani, a junior at Robert E. Lee High School in a suburb of Washington, are enrolling in expensive S.A.T.-preparation programs in unusually high numbers.

Some test-preparation firms report that enrollment increased by as much as 285 percent over the previous year for coaching sessions last fall geared to the Preliminary S.A.T./National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Test, a precursor to the revised S.A.T. that is used to qualify students for a wide range of scholarships.

"I think a lot of people jumped in the preparation classes early because they've been concerned about the changes, and they wanted to find out as much as possible as early as possible,'' said Melissa Mack, a spokeswoman for Kaplan Educational Centers, which offers P.S.A.T.- and S.A.T.-preparation classes in 44 states and territories.

Ms. Daswani, who is taking a coaching course offered by a Kaplan rival, Princeton Review, put it more succinctly: "We just didn't want to be guinea pigs.''

Greater Focus on Reasoning

Known formally for years as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, the S.A.T. has been renamed the S.A.T.-1: Reasoning Test to reflect its greater focus on testing students' reasoning and critical-thinking skills. And the letters S.A.T. now stand for Scholastic Assessment Test.

Created in 1926, the test is used by colleges and universities as a common yardstick by which to judge the academic potential of their applicants. The College Board offers the testing program as a service for its members; the Educational Testing Service constructs the test under contract to the board.

The S.A.T. is primarily used by colleges and universities on the East and West coasts and in parts of the South. Midwestern institutions tend to require other college-entrance examinations.

The last time the S.A.T. was changed significantly was in 1974, when the test of standard written English was added.

The most recent changes were approved three years ago and have been field-tested since then by more than half a million students.

The verbal portion of the test was lengthened from one hour to 75 minutes to devote more time to questions that are based on longer reading passages and that emphasize critical-reading skills.

Given two passages with contrasting points of view, for example, students will be asked to answer multiple-choice questions comparing the selections.

And the test of standard written English, which used multiple-choice questions to gauge students' writing ability, is no longer part of the basic S.A.T.

Another change will require students to search for the context for vocabulary questions in the texts. But, while traditional antonym questions have been dropped, sentence-completion and analogy items remain.

In the mathematics section, students will be asked for the first time to "grid in'' responses for 10 questions, rather than to choose among several multiple-choice alternatives. The math test is also 15 minutes longer, and students, for the first time, will be allowed to use hand-held calculators.

"The test is not going to be more difficult,'' said Janice Gams, a spokeswoman for the College Board. She attributed concerns about the new test to "the fact that there's change, and change can be confusing.''

'Cosmetic' Changes?

College Board officials said the revisions reflect changes in the classroom that are occurring as a result of the education-reform movement, which has stressed reasoning and problem-solving over rote memorization of facts.

But longtime critics of the testing program called the changes "cosmetic.''

"Our basic problem with the test is that it is still a multiple-choice exam that places too much emphasis on speed and guessing rather than placing emphasis on how students think, write, and solve problems,'' said Cinthia Schuman, the executive director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a nonprofit group in Cambridge, Mass., that monitors standardized testing.

The test is still "coachable,'' Ms. Schuman said, which makes it unfair to students who cannot afford to pay as much as $700 for commercial test-preparation courses.

Officials of the companies that offer such test preparation agreed.

"In fact, I think the test is now a more coachable test,'' said Michelle Ford, the director of Washington-area S.A.T.-preparation programs for Princeton Review.

Her company advises students not to spend time reading entire texts in the verbal section. Rather, the company says, students should read only passages that correspond directly to the questions.

And, like other companies, it counsels students on strategies for making "educated guesses'' on multiple-choice questions.

With such strategies, some test preparation companies say, students can boost their S.A.T. scores by up to 100 points out of a maximum score of 1,600 points.

'Caveat Emptor'

But officials of the College Board point to studies suggesting that such claims are based on selective reporting of students' scores or mislabeling of what constitutes a real gain.

According to an analysis of several studies published last summer in the journal Educational Measurement: Issues and Practice, students can expect a 27-point increase simply by retaking the test.

"It's always 'caveat emptor,''' Ms. Gams said. Test-preparation companies are using students' uncertainty over the revised S.A.T. to attract more customers, she said.

To familiarize students with the new test, the College Board mailed 2.5 million free copies of an 80-page booklet with sample questions to 30,000 high school guidance offices worldwide. Among the advice the publication gives: Read the test directions before coming to the testing center in order to save time on the test.

In addition, some schools have offered S.A.T.-preparation workshops to students.

In Shalini Daswani's experience, at least, the test-taking advice offered by schools has not always been helpful. In response to the rumors circulating at her Virginia high school, she said, a teacher there devoted a classroom period to teaching students how to write essays on standardized tests.

Ms. Daswani was among 14 college-bound students who showed up on a snowy evening in February for the fourth weekly session of a six-week S.A.T.-preparation course taught by Princeton Review at an Annandale, Va., hotel.

The students represented a wide span of test-taking abilities.

They ranged from a high school junior looking to break 1,000 on the test to another student trying to parlay a 1,200 P.S.A.T. score into a 1,300 S.A.T. score and entrance to Yale University.

By taking this course and the P.S.A.T., which was revamped along the same lines as the S.A.T., these students have now become well versed in the changes on the exam.

"I think it is different, but it's different for the better,'' said Scott Hennessee, an Alexandria, Va., community-college student. "I was worried, but I'm not anymore.''

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