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Anxious Students Brace for New SAT

Preparation Techniques Change in Response to Test's Focus

By Julia Feldmeier
Special to The Washington Post
Thursday, March 10, 2005; Page HO03

Tomorrow night, like many of her classmates, Mary-Pat Forsyth will try to get to bed early so she'll be well rested for Saturday, when the College Board unveils a refashioned version of the nation's best-known college admissions exam, the SAT.

The standardized test has induced jitters in high school students for more than 70 years, and speculation about this year's exam has triggered even more anxiety. It's the unknown that's unnerving. The SAT has dispensed with the oft-dreaded analogies ("lie is to deceive as speech is to communicate") and replaced it with more "critical reading" passages already seen on the exam.

Math questions, which never went beyond 10th-grade level, will now include more advanced algebra concepts usually taught in 11th grade. The addition of a writing section, consisting of multiple-choice questions covering grammar and editing skills and an essay, will bump the perfect score, formerly 1600, up to 2400 and increase the duration of the test 25 percent, to three hours and 45 minutes.

The new writing section of the SAT I requires a subjective essay and will include multiple-choice questions similar to those on the now-defunct SAT II writing exam.

Many students, unsure exactly what the scorers will be looking for, have been reviewing literature to reference in their essays. Forsyth, a junior at Centennial High School, has honed in on "Gone With the Wind" and "A Tale of Two Cities."

Margaret Mitchell's Civil War epic "was a book that had a lot of different issues that would cover a lot of things I could use as examples," she said.

Joshua Flyer, an Atholton High School junior, spent the past month preparing for the essay by going over points made in previous school papers. Still, he's worried.

"It can vary a lot whether I'm interested in the topic," he said. "It's easier to use personal experience, something I've related to. When you don't really have a personal experience that relates to the topic and you need to use a literary example, it's a little tougher."

Although many students -- Forsyth and Flyer included -- opt for outside tutoring and preparation, Howard County schools are giving a nod to the SAT in the classroom.

Lin Storey, an English teacher at River Hill High School and the English department's instructional leader, has mandated that teachers at every grade teach at least one SAT practice test.

"The first thing we have to do is have the teachers feel that teaching the SAT is not just an 11th-grade endeavor. It's a ninth-grade through 12th-grade endeavor," Storey said.

Cynthia Harden, director of Learning Together in Education Services of Maryland, said many students in her private SAT prep classes are given homework asking them to craft compound sentences and employ other grammar tactics.

The new SAT "requires the schools now to redirect some of their efforts to grammar and writing skills, and I think for a number of years that was de-emphasized," Harden said.

The test sends a message to focus more on writing, said Martha Gagnon, a veteran SAT prep specialist in Woodbine.

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