Reading & Literacy

SAT’s Next Chapter About to Be Written

By Vaishali Honawar — February 01, 2005 12 min read
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At South Lakes High School in Reston, Va., the SAT is serious business.

Each year, more than 75 percent of the school’s students take the college-admissions test. The walls of its career center are adorned with pennants from universities across the country, symbols of where thousands of the school’s students have matriculated over the years.

This strong commitment to higher education, Principal Realista Rodriguez points out, comes in a school of diverse backgrounds. Nearly half its 1,600 students are members of ethnic or racial minority groups, and many do not speak English as their first language. Almost one-fourth of South Lakes’ students receive free or reduced-priced lunches.

“If you stretch them a bit more, they will stretch” is Ms. Rodriguez’s mantra for student success.

But now South Lakes, like other high schools across the country hoping to set their students on the path to college, is facing a new challenge.

Starting in March, the SAT, taken annually by more than 1.4 million college-bound students, will undergo its most significant change since 1994, when the College Board, which sponsors the test, first allowed calculators into test rooms, added open-ended math questions, and eliminated antonyms and added more critical-reading passages in the verbal section.

Now, in addition to math and verbal (renamed Critical Reading) sections, the SAT will include a writing section comprising a 25-minute essay question and questions that will require students to identify sentence errors and improve sentences and paragraphs. The exam, which is developed by the Educational Testing Service of Princeton, N.J., also will contain more advanced math, including topics from third-year college-preparatory math, such as exponential growth and absolute value.

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College Board President Gaston Caperton said the new test will have a positive effect on the quality of teaching in schools.

“I happen to believe very strongly that the test needs to be not just the best admissions test in the world, but it should also drive a better education system that makes students better prepared to go to college and succeed,” he said.

The revised SAT and its essay question will help because the demands for writing in college are way beyond what most high schools now require, he added. Already, he said, schools have stepped up their programs in writing to better prepare students for the SAT.

There are also other changes. Testing time will increase from three hours to three hours and forty-five minutes. The classic SAT maximum score of 1600 will become obsolete, replaced by a maximum of 2400.

The changes came soon after Richard Atkinson, then the president of the University of California system, in 2001 proposed in a speech dropping the SAT as an admissions requirement in the UC system. He said the test did not emphasize what is taught in the high school curriculum, and he recommended, among other revisions, that students be asked to produce a writing sample.

While the College Board acknowledges that it paid attention to the University of California’s suggestions—“We would be stupid not to,” Mr. Caperton said—it says the changes were primarily a result of a 1990 report from a blue-ribbon panel, which also spurred the changes in 1994.

At the time, the panel considered the addition of a writing section, but the College Board could not adopt one because of the lack of technological capability to transmit millions of student essays to professional readers for scoring—something that is feasible today, Mr. Caperton said.

More Writing Assignments

The College Board was formed in 1900 by a group of leading universities, including Columbia, Cornell, and Johns Hopkins, to create an entrance exam that would help students get into college based on merit. At the time, America’s elite universities admitted mostly the children of alumni or graduates of New England’s top boarding schools.

The original “college boards” were mostly subject-based tests and included essays. The Scholastic Aptitude Test was introduced in 1926 with two sections—verbal and math—and included multiple-choice questions. In 1937, the College Board added the SAT II, which tested students’ knowledge and skills in particular subject areas.

Students prepare for the new SAT.

The test has undergone other changes over the years, but nothing quite like the latest revision.

Some observers, including teachers, have concerns about the new SAT. The revised test’s tilt toward English could hurt students who are better at math and those who speak English as a second language, they say.

They also argue that the new test will be more vulnerable than ever to test-preparation courses, and therefore strongly favor those who can afford them.

At South Lakes High, there has been some concern among parents and students about the writing section, given the large numbers of students in the school who are not native speakers of English, Ms. Rodriguez said.

“And the children always get nervous when they hear it’s a new test,” she said.

Although Virginia’s standardized tests, known as the Standards of Learning, already emphasize writing and math, the school is charging ahead to make sure its students are abreast of every aspect of the new SAT.

In November, South Lakes students could take a practice test based on the new SAT that was administered by Kaplan Inc., the test-preparation company.

A school task force on the new exam has been set up, made up of English and math teachers. At meetings, said math teacher John Schlosser, members brainstorm on strategies to help students better understand the changes. One strategy is to integrate SAT-style questions into class quizzes. That approach is important because in math, for instance, the terms used on a state SOL test may be different from those used on the SAT, Mr. Schlosser said.

Teachers are also assigning more writing projects. Often, English and math classes start with an SAT practice question.

Bea Hernandez, 17, a South Lakes junior, said one of her teachers has an “SAT minute” in each class, when he asks students to solve math problems from old tests. Those who answer correctly can win a small prize.

The 166,000-student Fairfax County school district in the Washington suburbs, which includes South Lakes High, also has its own test-prep Web site.

Arria Ibach, an SAT testing supervisor and a guidance counselor at the school, says she believes that the new SAT is an improvement over the current test because it better reflects what students need to know when they get to college.

“It encourages a higher order of thinking,” she said.

Test-Prep Boom

While even the SAT’s harshest critics agree that some of the changes are for the better, they are quick to argue that the College Board has failed to address what critics see as one of the most basic problems with college admissions tests: Students can be coached to beat them.

Andy Lutz, the vice president of program development for the Princeton Review, along with Kaplan Inc., one of the major test-preparation companies, says that the essay is a good addition to the SAT, but that students can easily be taught a formula to write high-scoring essays.

In fact, several test-prep books already offer students tips for a five-paragraph formula. Students are asked to summarize their thoughts in the lead paragraph, follow up those thoughts with sound arguments in the following three paragraphs, and then sum it all up in a final paragraph.

“The kind of writing that will be rewarded is not the most creative,” Mr. Lutz said. “There are going to be some pretty well-defined methods for assigning scores to students, and there are certain types of writing that, while creative and interesting, might not necessarily be rewarded with a high SAT score.”

“This is not the sort of writing one needs in college or to be successful in life,” said Robert Schaeffer, the public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based group long critical of the SAT.

Students work on SAT prep.

The College Board, however, says such fears are unfounded. While essays that appear to follow a formula won’t be penalized, they will also not be rewarded, the nonprofit organization says.

Chiara Coletti, a College Board spokeswoman, says that there is “great room for creativity” in the essays, and that scorers would value personal examples.

“An essay that is too formulaic is not going to answer the question,” she said.

Still, anxiety over the essay question and other changes to the SAT has led to a boom in the test-prep market. Test-prep companies say they have invested a lot of time and resources to keep pace with the changes and the demand.

“We’ve done a tremendous amount of work to revamp our courses to meet the demands of the new test,” said Jennifer Karan, the national director of SAT/ACT programs for New York City-based Kaplan.

The test-prep companies say 2004 has been their busiest year since the College Board changed the SAT in 1994.

“The demand is just going through the roof,” said Mr. Lutz of Princeton Review.

David B. Gruenbaum, the author of the test-prep book New SAT 2005: Inside Out!, runs his own test-prep business in Irvine, Calif. He says he saw a 40 percent increase in enrollment in 2004 over 2003.

Ms. Colletti predicts that the boom in test preparation will taper off in coming years after the newness of the changes has worn off. “That’s what we saw when we changed the test 10 years ago,” she said.

Many educators believe that the removal of the verbal test’s widely disparaged analogies section, in fact, will make the test less coachable. The analogies section tested students’ ability to find the relationship between a pair of given words and then identify a pair of words from the answer choices that had the same relationship.

Scores of books giving students tricks and tips to score well on the new SAT, including the essay question, are now on the market. And prep courses that can set a family back as much as $1,000 guarantee SAT score increases of 100 points or more.

SAT critics warn that students from families that cannot afford the private courses could find themselves left behind.

“Parents who can afford it can buy their children a huge leg up in college admissions,” said Mr. Schaeffer of FairTest.

Photo Anagnostopoulous, the senior vice president for product development at the College Board, said it has sought to ensure that the test is not tilted against students who don’t speak English at home or those from poor families.

“Our commitment is to ensure equity,” she said, pointing out that SAT practice questions are available to all students on the College Board Web site.

Worries About Equity

For schools with large populations of children who speak English as a second language, the concerns linger.

Julie Davis, who teaches English to 11th and 12th graders at the 3,100-student Venice High School in Los Angeles, likes the new writing requirement. But nearly half her students, she said, are not native speakers of English. Some are recent immigrants who speak almost none.

A lot of her students, she said, were really concerned when they heard about the essay. Kaplan administered a practice essay test at the school, and many students did not do well, adding to their fears.

“A lot of children, when afraid, don’t confront the issue, but hide from it,” Ms. Davis said. She said that while a good number of students at Venice High take the SAT each year, many prefer to simply enroll in a community college because they are afraid of the test. She is worried the new writing requirement could increase the number of such students.

Some observers are also worried about the effect of the expanded test on students who do better in math than in English.

Mr. Gruenbaum, the test-prep author and a strong proponent of the writing test, believes there is reason to worry that the new version is tipped in favor of students who are better at English.

“Some children are just brilliant in math and awful in English, so why should one count twice as much?” he said.

Arguments for and against the retooled SAT make little difference to those they will affect the most—the millions of college-bound students who have little choice but to take them. Although a growing number of institutions don’t require admissions tests, a majority of U.S. colleges and universities still require applicants to take either the SAT or the other major college-entrance exam, the ACT. (See related story, page 14.)

An Early Start

On a cold winter night recently, Ben McLeod, 14, listened warily as Kaplan employee Candace Washington told students and parents at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., about the new SAT.

The Blair High 9th grader recently took a practice version of the new SAT. He had just gotten his scores from Ms. Washington and learned he did not do as well as he would have hoped.

“It’s not going to be easy for me. I am not that good at writing,” said the young man with a mop of dark hair and serious eyeglasses, lips half-curved with anxiety.

Although for him the real test is almost two years away, Mr. McLeod is worried enough about the future career he plans as a physical education teacher to wait for the end of Ms. Washington’s speech and grill her some more about the test.

Sitting a few feet from him, Kathy Buck, the parent of another 9th grader, said she also has questions about the new SAT.

“I want to know how a computer will grade my daughter’s writing,” she said.

Moments later, she is visibly relieved when Ms. Washington tells her and other parents that real people—high school and college-level teachers of English—will score the essays.

Ms. Washington, who presents similar seminars at two or three schools in the Washington area each week, said that what is supposed to be a 45-minute discussion often turns into a three-hour question-and-answer session.

“Usually, the parents are even more anxious than the students,” she said.

At South Lakes High School, students who plan to take the new test in March and April say they feel some pressure from their families to do well. But, they add, they are also getting a great deal of support.

Yousaf Sajid, 17, an 11th grader at the Virginia school, said his older siblings who have gone to college offer plenty of advice.

He considers himself a good writer and is confident of doing well, but he has already started doing practice tests. After all, he said, the SAT is a “daunting test. You know your future is riding on it, and that’s a bit scary.”

Brendin Rogers, 17, also an 11th grader, has his future mapped out: He wants to attend Washington Bible College in Lanham, Md., a cherished dream after his youth pastor asked him to preach at the church one week. The young man already sets aside three hours every Saturday to do practice SAT tests.

“I might also attend a prep class at the local community center,” he said. He plans to take the new SAT in April.

Mr. Rogers said his parents want him to go to college so he can be independent. They are making sure he gets the message: His birthday gift was an SAT-prep book and a CD-ROM of practice tests.

A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as SAT’s Next Chapter About to Be Written


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