"Any progressive school system like Howard County will, and already does, consider this a wake-up call and will be emphasizing writing a lot more in their curriculum," Gagnon said.
Although the new format has prompted more in-classroom emphasis on extemporaneous timed writing and decoding longer reading passages, it also validates the increasing emphasis in Howard schools on grammar and writing mechanics, which began more than five years ago, school officials said.
In this growing culture of testing, the SAT -- taken by 1.4 million students nationwide last year -- is the granddaddy. SAT prep classes are offered as for-credit electives at Glenelg and River Hill high schools, which had the second-highest average combined SAT score in the county for 2004, behind Centennial. Almost all Howard County high schools offer after-school prep programs.
Is the new test better?
For teaching purposes, yes, teachers said.
"It's going to be a lot easier for teachers to teach kids the kinds of items that the SAT is looking for," said Marcy Seigel, an English teacher and after-school SAT prep instructor at Glenelg. "You can't really teach analogies and have that relate to any of your literature, but you can use literature to teach sentence structure. It'll fit with the curriculum that we're already teaching."
College admissions officers, who can download the essays, might find the new test more helpful as an indicator of an applicant's potential. "I think colleges want to have a sense of [an applicant's] writing skills," Harden said.
It's unclear how colleges will assess the new scores. Some students, such as Forsyth, are trying to think positively.
"I've heard that the essay can only boost up your score," she said.