The stress is enormous. The baby boomers' kids are high school seniors, and the competition to get into colleges is fiercer than ever, in spite of skyrocketing tuition costs. The only common factor that colleges have to compare applicants from a great diversity of high schools nationwide continues to be the SAT.
The SAT used to stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test, and its purpose was to measure a student's aptitude for succeeding in college. There has been much controversy regarding how closely SAT results actually measure success in college. I took the SAT twice, and while my math score increased by 80 points, my verbal score decreased by 100. So, I was skeptical. Post reporter Jay Mathews recently wrote that many extremely successful people, including many household names, had low SAT scores.
In June 2002 the College Board changed the SAT to an achievement test, measuring instead what students have learned in grades K-12. In March, the new SAT will be born. Here are the changes:
* The analogies section will be replaced by new, short reading passages.
* The new SAT adds an essay section and two grammar usage sections. The length of the testing period consequently increases by 45 minutes. The top overall score increases from 1600 to 2400 to accommodate the writing component.
* The quantitative comparison section goes; more-challenging math problems, mostly from Algebra 2, will be added.
Happily, though vocabulary will still be part of the test, students will no longer need to memorize long lists of words for the analogies section. That is great news for those of us who are good readers but don't do well with isolated vocabulary words, most of which we will never see or use.
Finally, colleges can assess students' writing without relying on college essays that might have been ghost-written. The writing section allows 25 minutes in which to write a cohesive, persuasive essay based on one or two quotes by famous people. Students will be asked to respond to the quote or quotes, pick an opinion and support it. By employing examples from art, history, science and literature, the student will demonstrate that he or she has been reading and paying attention in school.
According to Michael Jay Friedman, a former instructor in international relations at the University of Pennsylvania, "Anything that requires high school students to master the proper structure of an essay is beneficial."
Janice Lloyd, principal of Falls Church High School, said, "The persuasive essay will enhance teacher expectations and provide high school and college-bound students the opportunity to assess their preparation for college."
Added Carole Heller, an English and SAT tutor, the new test will underscore that schools should focus on strengthening grammar, vocabulary, writing and test-taking skills starting in junior high. "All of these skills are absolutely crucial for succeeding in college," she said.
Who can dispute the addition of reading comprehension questions? What college skill is more important than reading? Even better, the wide variety of subjects will allow students to find areas that interest them and demonstrate that they are well-rounded.
Few people will argue against eliminating the tricky quantitative comparison section. More-challenging math problems will more effectively measure math achievement. As Linda Thomson, principal of Fairfax High School, said: "As a former math teacher, yes, I think adding Algebra 2-level questions is a good thing. . . . The same study skills and self-discipline that enable students to be successful in Algebra 1 and 2 should predict success in most college curriculum areas."
Our reaction to the new SAT should be not fear, but delight. In college, you need the ability to read effectively, write grammatically and persuasively, and think logically. That is what the new SAT will measure. The Virginia Standards of Learning test already features writing and grammar for each year of high school.
According to Robert J. Elliott, principal of W.T. Woodson High School in Fairfax, "We feel very confident about the changes for Woodson students, in part because we've been emphasizing writing and encouraging students to take as demanding a load as possible the past few years."
Many of today's college-bound students take test preparation courses or receive tutoring to raise their scores. I am optimistic that with the new SAT, we can minimize teaching students how to handle tricks and focus instead on strategies and content.
Meanwhile, you can start preparing for the new SAT in preschool and continue in grades K-12 by reading and writing regularly and for pleasure. And don't forget to do your math homework. The new SAT will measure it all. In the spring, the SAT will get a new look. The revamped test will include a writing test, expanded math questions and critical reading from a variety of texts. In this guest column, Cheryl Feuer Gedzelman of Oak Hill discusses the changes. She is director of Tutoring for Success Inc., a local company that provides tutors (www.tutoringforsuccess.com).