It's bigger--is it better?
Doug Sprankling doesn't pull any punches when it comes to the new SAT. "I'm not that big a fan," says the junior at Davis (Calif.) Senior High School. He is just one of the uneasy students facing a much-revamped version of the test that 330,000 high schoolers will take for the first time on March 12. It's not that he thinks the exam is going to be harder, necessarily. It's just going to be so different. "The old one was such an institution in high school culture," says Sprankling: Get a 1600, earn a shot at Harvard. "We all know what it means."
But the prospect of an entirely new exam--with three sections now boosting the perfect score to a more mysterious 2400--makes Sprankling and his classmates feel like guinea pigs. "Everyone's always freaking out about this test," says Mallory Richards, a junior at Davis who will be tackling the SAT for the first time in May. "Being the lab rats--well, that reinforces the overreaction."
And believe her when she says the new SAT has gotten quite a reaction. Some 2.2 million students take the country's most popular college entrance exam each year, and this year's group, more than most, seems to be scrambling for answers. Kaplan Test Prep, one of the biggest companies offering SAT prep, is reporting a 78 percent increase in the number of students signing up for its practice tests this year. But as Saturday's test takers prepare to sharpen their No. 2 pencils, many are still wondering just what will be on this new exam, why it changed in the first place--and what exactly colleges and universities are going to do with it.
What students will encounter on Saturday is the biggest change the SAT has undergone in at least a generation. The verbal section has been dramatically rejiggered: Analogies--lambasted for years by test critics who felt they emphasized word memorization over analytical skills--have been dropped. Short reading passages have been added, and the entire section has been renamed "Critical Reading" to reflect its new emphasis. The math section, too, has been changed, with the elimination of quantitative comparison questions in favor of more advanced math.
Extra credit. Stealing the spotlight, though, is the test's new writing component. The 60-minute section includes multiple-choice questions on improving sentences and identifying errors in diction or grammar, as well as a 25-minute essay, which accounts for 30 percent toward the 800-point total. The essays will be graded on a scale of 1 to 6 by some 10,000 high school English teachers and college professors trained to evaluate students' work.
Why all the changes now? Critics have long said that the exam was too focused on IQ instead of achievement, too gimmicky, and too vulnerable to test-prep and that too many minorities struggled to score as well as whites. The College Board, which owns the test, insists that it has been mulling over how to respond to these critiques for years but that, especially when it came to writing, the technology was never available to grade over 2 million tests taken all over the country.