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Scores for New SAT Come In, but Real Test Is Deciphering Them

First Essay and Changes in Math Portion Make Evaluating Results Puzzling for Students, Parents -- and Even Colleges

By Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 14, 2005; Page B01

They thought the sleepless nights were over when they closed their test booklets last month.

The 300,000 brave young souls who were first to take the retooled SAT endured the dreaded new essay. They slogged through an exam that now lasts about four times as long as the average root canal.

But now comes the next phase of angst.

This week, as students across the nation began retrieving their scores from the College Board Web site, cries of, "What did I get?" are being replaced by, "What does it mean?"

It appears that the test's changed scoring scale -- students can now score a maximum of 2400 -- is causing much confusion among college-bound teenagers, their parents and school counselors who are desperately trying to determine whether 2300 is the new 1500.

Sara Naeseth, 16, a junior at Broadneck High School in Annapolis, set her alarm early -- 5:30 a.m. instead of 5:40 -- and saw her scores before dawn Monday.

Had she done well?

"I had no idea what well was," Sara said.

David Malasky can relate. His daughter, Jackie, 16, a junior at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, took the SAT, too, but the family isn't sure what to think of her score.

"It's hard to get a handle on how well she did when there's nothing to compare it to,'' Malasky said.

March was the first time that students across the country took the new SAT, which is 45 minutes longer than the previous three-hour version and includes an essay and a math section covering concepts in Algebra II.

By the end of the evening Monday, the first day that scores were available online, more than 85 percent of the students who took the exam had jammed the College Board Web site.

For 107 students, including six in Virginia, five in Maryland and three in the District, the news was great: They achieved a perfect 2400 on the exam. But other students were left with questions that even experts have no answer for.

Officials with the College Board, which administers the test, said it will take at least a year before they will have a large enough sample to provide comparison data, including average scores and percentile information, to the public.

For now, they urged people to resist the urge to draw parallels between scores on the 1600 scale with the new 2400 scale. Caren Scoropanos, a College Board spokeswoman, said students can compare their scores on the verbal and math portions with those from previous exams. But the essay, because it's new, would have to stand alone, she said.

In the meantime, college admissions officers are wrestling with how they will use the new scores, particularly on the written portion. Georgetown University and the University of Maryland said they will look only at verbal and math scores this year, until they have more experience with the essay section. Howard University officials said they are trying to determine how they will use the writing section.

Harvard University and the University of California system have said they will look at the entire test -- writing section included.

University of Virginia officials also will count all sections of the new SAT in admissions decisions. But John A. Blackburn, dean of admission at U-Va., said the college will be as "skeptical as ever" about the test and not consider it a major factor in decisions.

Even though many colleges said the SAT is only one part of an application, many students see their score as a make-or-break proposition.

"There's a lot made about SAT scores, and more has been made of this round of SAT scores because they're so different and could ultimately be a deciding factor for many students,'' said Jennifer Karan, national director at Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions (which is owned by The Washington Post Co.). "Colleges are turning more frequently to standardized tests because of concerns about grade inflation.''

Malasky of Bethesda wants to know how colleges will evaluate the scores and whether they will look at the math portion differently because it included higher-level concepts than the old version did. On a recent six-college tour with his daughter, he said, admissions officers didn't have many concrete answers.

At Stone Bridge High School in Ashburn, guidance director Tim Lucas said a handful of students have trickled into his office this week to talk about their scores. For most, the numbers hovered about 1500 out of a possible 2400, and one student hit 1900, he said.

"There's a lot of unknowns for the kids right now," Lucas said. "I really can't tell if the kids are doing really well or not until I can look at the scores in a grander scope."

For now, Lucas said, he is telling students aiming for a slot in a top-tier university to shoot for an overall score of about 2100. Some Stone Bridge students already are talking about retaking the test in June, but Lucas said he is telling them to take a breath before they decide.

Other counselors in the area said they are still waiting to hear how students are taking their scores.

"I've spoken to three students, and they had mixed emotions about the test," said Gail Thomas of the School Without Walls Senior High School in Northwest Washington. "I haven't heard a lot of comments about the scoring. I'm not sure if they understand the significance of the scoring. It will take a while to sink in."

Staff writers Daniel de Vise, Maria Glod, Jay Mathews, V. Dion Haynes and Ian Shapira contributed to this report.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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