November 17, 2003

SAT Undergoes Changes

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Beginning in 2005, the SAT I, the well-known standardized test for college admissions, will undergo several changes to its structure. These changes will affect current high school sophomores and will include an additional third section, with an essay and sentence corrections, and more upper-level math questions.

The addition of a third 800 point section will be the biggest change to the test — which will bring the total possible score on the SAT to 2400 points, up from the current 1600. The new writing section will include multiple-choice questions about grammar and word usage as well as an essay. The essay topic will require students to take a position on a given issue and to support their arguments with examples. The essay will occupy about 25 minutes of the test and most likely will be the first task students have to tackle. The multiple-choice questions will test a student’s ability to identify errors and make corrections to sentences.

Other major changes to the test include the elimination of analogies and the addition of short reading passages alongside the longer passages in the reading section. In addition, the mathematics section will test students on more advanced math — including principles learned in a typical Algebra II high school class.

“The new test is more comprehensive,” said Leah Strugatz ’04, who tutors students at Kaplan Test Prep. “Sections most students find the least practical, analogies and quantitative comparisons, are eliminated. The added essay is probably a better indicator of students’ writing ability than college essays,” she said.

The costs associated with the new changes in scoring will raise the price of the SAT approximately $10 or $12. The test will last three hours and thirty-five minutes, a half hour longer than the current test. “The results from studies done by other organizations on timed tests also indicate that fatigue does not affect performance on high-stakes tests until the total length of the test exceeds five hours,” the College Board says on its website.

“In combination with high school grades, the SAT is the best measure of predicting college retention and graduation, as well as freshman year and cumulative college grades,” according to the College Board.

The College Board is revising the SAT in order to “improve the alignment of the test with current curriculum and institutional practices in high school and college. By including a third measure of skills, writing, the new SAT will reinforce the importance of writing throughout a student’s education and will help colleges make better admissions and placement decisions.”

More than 100 colleges and universities, including Cornell, plan to require a writing test for admission for students entering college in the fall of 2006.

“The test makers are changing the SAT to make it more reflective of the high school curriculum and more predictive of college success. More advanced math is consistent with schools’ push for more students to take four years of math and strong writing skills are essential for college success — particularly in liberal arts subjects. The inclusion of a writing section will also help college admissions officers assess applicants more thoroughly,” said Jon Zeitlin, director of the new SAT for Kaplan.

According to Zeitlin, “Kaplan will revise their prep courses to reflect the new changes.” “We will be making significant adjustments to our test prep courses and materials to make sure that students will be as prepared as possible for the change. It will be crucial for students to adjust their preparation for the new test, in particular for the new writing section,” he said. Zeitlin added that the new material is similar to the SAT II writing and math tests, so both Kaplan instructors and students will review material that is familiar, but in a new context.

“[Students] will need to learn how to quickly but carefully read and interpret the prompts, quickly decide if they agree or disagree with the statement, plan their essay in 3-5 minutes, focus on the main points of each paragraph and write topic sentences, include supporting details and leave enough time to proofread their essays. They will also have to change how they study for the advanced algebra questions,” Zeitlin added.

C. William Heffner, a college counselor at Ithaca High School, said the new test “could be a benefit to students. The SATs are more accurately reflecting what colleges need to know, what high schools are teaching.” He explained that Ithaca High School does not offer any standardized test preparation as part of its curriculum but he claims that the school has a challenging curriculum, which prepares students well for exams like the SAT.

Heffner believes the addition of the writing section may scare away students who do not need a writing test for college admissions. “Students might look more favorably on the ACT,” he said, referring to another standardized test that is popular outside of the Northeast.

“Writing an essay scares people,” he said, adding that most students probably would prefer a multiple-choice format.

In the fall of 2004, preceding the first new SAT, students will take a PSAT that will be similar to the new test but without the essay. The PSAT will include harder math topics such as absolute value and exponential growth, but not quadratic functions, which will appear on the SAT, according to the College Board. Beginning in March 2005, the College Board will administer the new SAT.

Students often take the College Board’s SAT II: Writing Test if colleges they are applying to require a writing test. That test will be discontinued once the new SAT becomes available, although versions of the writing test will still be accessible to colleges that want to use the test for admissions.

Critics of the new test accuse the College Board of attempting to change what students learn in school. Although the Board has no legal power over school curricula, the influence of Board tests on college admissions nevertheless may cause some education reform.

The College Board’s website includes a 24-page brochure called “The New SAT and Your School System,” which outlines the changes as a result of current classroom practice. “You may wish to review some of your academic priorities and sequencing to see if your college-preparatory curriculum is structured to maximize benefits to your college-bound students,” it says, before giving a detailed list of suggestions to improve the curriculum to cater to the skills required for the new test.

“By making the ability to write well a measure by which applicants will be evaluated, schools will focus more attention on teaching writing in grades K-12. With this renewed focus, students should arrive on campus better prepared for college courses, and the need for remediation at colleges should be reduced,” according to the College Board. Before the test, the College Board plans to send materials to schools to help prepare students for the new test in the classroom, especially for the essay section, which they might not have seen otherwise.

Another potential concern raised by critics is whether the new test will measure what students have learned in school, rather than their general-reasoning abilities. In response to questions regarding whether educational inequality could effect scoring, Prof. Steve Morgan, sociology, did not believe the new test would have a large impact for most students applying to competitive colleges. “I regard such tests as somewhat useful for prospective students and for universities, as they help move the admissions process along. However, since the vast majority of colleges in the U.S. are not selective in admissions, I do not expect any modest changes such as these to have any substantial eff
ects on enrollment patterns.”

Morgan defended the admissions process at Cornell and similar schools, explaining, “It is very important for students to know that elite colleges that rely on SAT scores to sort applicants do so with a great deal of sensitivity and care. If the new SAT begins to measure anything other than what it currently does, elite colleges like Cornell will re-evaluate how they use the test results with an eye toward ensuring that they to continue to admit the most qualified and promising applicants.”

“The consideration of admission to Cornell University involves a review and assessment of many items. Standardized test results are but one of many factors that help us to determine a student’s admissibility,” said Doris Davis, associate provost for admissions and enrollment. “While it is impossible to know what affect the new SAT I will have on our admissions decisions, I suspect that the affect will be minimal, if any at all.”

Archived article by Stephanie Baritz

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