Byline: Richard Rubin
Maybe they should just call it the SIT. Because that's what students will do when the new SAT debuts in March: sit through a new grammar section, sit through a new write-your-own-essay section and sit through an already grueling test that's 25 percent longer. The college-entrance exam--three hours and 45 minutes in all--will test the patience of a generation hooked on videogames and instant messaging. The new SAT will require perseverance, and it will require thinking in whole paragraphs.
Standardized tests are a fact of life for high-school students, all the more so for the ones headed off for four years of further education. While all colleges profess to evaluate applicants based, of course, on their unique attributes, sheer volume requires most schools to rely on standardized tests to create a baseline: in theory, the SAT score of the city kid in Pittsburgh can be compared with that of the lad raised on a farm in Iowa. With applications skyrocketing at so many colleges, especially the most selective, test scores become even more attractive barometers.
All that puts preternatural pressure on high-school students. And in recent years it's led to boom times for test-prep companies (like Kaplan and the Princeton Review), as well as tutors and trade publishers. The new SAT will only dial up the stress factor. Attacking the test has long been in vogue. Among the criticisms: it's culturally biased and unfair to students at lower socioeconomic levels, and answering the questions correctly doesn't really correlate to college success.
In response, the College Board (which owns the test) and the Educational Testing Service (which writes it) agreed to modifications. The new SAT may now be more like the other big standardized test, the ACT Assessment. Most prevalent in the Midwest, the ACT aims more at mastery of curriculum than at reasoning. In the long run, it may well be that the SAT becomes more predictive, but for this year the SAT will be brand new, and nobody likes being a guinea pig.
What should students do? Experts say it's key to be familiar with any test's format. The new one includes the 25-minute essay, higher-level math and multiple-choice questions on grammar. The grammar section will look like an editing test. If you don't know that the 10 items or less sign in the market should be 10 items or fewer, start studying; some tutors are recommending books designed to teach English to foreigners. What won't be on the test are quantitative comparisons, a confusing format for math questions that asked students to measure results from two columns against each other. Also gone is the most notorious part of the verbal section: analogies are to the new SAT what dinosaurs are to the earth.
Why change the test? Blame California. The University of California system is one of the SAT's biggest customers. In 2001 the then president, Richard Atkinson, talked about dropping the test as an admissions requirement because, he said, the overreliance of colleges on the SAT caused students to focus on test preparation rather than knowledge. Instead he wanted a test that focused on high-school subjects. The College Board listened. During the last major revision, in 1994, test designers thought about adding an essay, but they lacked the technology to allow graders to score thousands of essays quickly, says Chiara Coletti, the board's vice president of communications and public affairs. The graders (mostly high-school and college English teachers) will receive essays electronically. "What [Atkinson] did was hurry us up, probably by a couple of years," Coletti says. She hopes the test will create a similar hurrying-up at high schools and middle schools that don't emphasize writing enough. Teaching to the test, she argues, wouldn't be a bad thing.
Will the changes affect perceptions about private tutoring? The College Board and test-prep companies have …