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JewishJournal.com

May 27, 2004

The New SAT: Not So Scary

http://www.jewishjournal.com/education/article/the_new_sat_not_so_scary_20040528

A small note appears at the bottom of the College Board's Web site (www.collegeboard.com) concerning the SAT II: Writing Test: "When the new SAT is introduced in March 2005, it will include a writing section with content similar to the SAT II: Writing Test. For this reason, the SAT II: Writing Test will no longer be offered after Jan. 22, 2005."

Whether you are a parent or a teenager, this statement should let you breathe a sigh of relief.

The new SAT, scheduled to be administered next spring to this year's high school sophomores, will include higher level math, a new essay section and the loss of analogies, among other changes. The writing section will be graded separately, on the same 200-800 point scale, making the total possible now 2,400, and adding 45 minutes to the three-hour test.

No wonder kids and parents across the country are nervous for their futures. "It's hard when you're the pioneer group to test it out," said Myra Meskin, a sophomore at Milken Community High School.

Indeed, pioneers are exactly what they are. Everyone involved in the SAT will have a year of experimentation, from the students, to the schools, to test preparation companies. Every study guide will become instantly outdated.

Considering the pressure in the Jewish community to excel and get into college, the thought of pioneering the new SAT can be very daunting. With hours of homework a day, extracurricular activities and competition becoming tougher, the new SAT has created "a bit of a stir," said Daniel Katon, sophomore at Harvard-Westlake. Katon, a well-spoken varsity football player, has been preparing for the SAT on and off since he was in middle school. He says he's a good writer, and is now looking forward to the new SAT.

The College Board, the organization that administers the test, has not reinvented the wheel, and most of the anxiety is unwarranted. Universities have always required that students submit not just SAT scores, but also at least three higher level SAT II scores, including the math and writing SAT II tests. In fact, UCLA's Web site tells prospective students that "the SAT II subject tests are designed to be closely related to the high school curriculum. For this reason, a student's performance on the SAT II tests tends to be a better indicator of his/her achievement in a given academic subject. Consequently, we give SAT II scores more consideration in the review process."

To put it simply, the new SAT will bundle within it many of the topics older kids had to do anyway.

"I imagine the standards will be the same, that is, the grading rubric will be similar," said Holly Westergren, a reader for the SAT II who's training for the new SAT.

Sample questions she's seen are very similar to the SAT II.

That's good news for many educators.

"Teachers have been excited about the changes," said Tami Gelb, college counselor at Yeshiva University High School.

They've sent teachers to College Board conferences to learn about the new SAT, and are working hard to emphasize more writing in the classroom.

"The writing sample shows a given student's ability to express themselves," she said.

Joe Blassberg, co-director of College Counseling at Milken, agrees: "The changes are positive changes and it's probably going to test students more reliably than in the past." Blassberg

said Milken's writing has always been "very intensive, always at the highest level."

For many students, there's room for optimism.

Take Shannon Pournazarian, a sophomore at Viewpoint. She's studying journalism, and believes the writing section will give her an advantage.

"I love writing, and I'm not really good at standardized tests, but expressing myself will give me the edge," she said. "I'm pretty happy, because I don't particularly like the analogies, and I think the essay is more critical for college."

Pournazarian's mother, Gilda, agrees, but has her reservations. She worries about her daughter being in the first wave of students taking the test. After attending a packed parent information session at Viewpoint she has mixed feelings about the essay.

"This could be great for [Shannon] but we don't know who will be grading [the essays]," she said.

Neil Kramer, dean of faculty at the New Community Jewish High School, wonders the same thing. With the College Board hiring new readers to grade the essays, he's not sure how reliable the scores will be. Some students have wondered out loud if their futures will be decided based on the mood of the reader.

Westergren, the SAT II reader, cautions against that fear.

"They do make an attempt to be sure that the grading is fairly holistic," she said. "They encourage us to 'read supportively,' keeping in mind the time limitations the kids are under and the pressures they feel to do well."

So what is Westergren's advice to an aspiring SAT taker wanting the best score? She recommends getting very good at organizing and learning how to balance the pre-writing with the writing within the 25-minute time period. Creativity is allowed, but, she cautions, most students find it hard to support their points, be structurally correct and be creative as well.

"It's better to be dry and correct than to be creative and all over the map," she said.

Ian Simpson is the owner of Integrated Learning, which specializes in tutoring for the SAT.

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