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New SAT introduces fear factor

| Thursday, March 10, 2005

Allison Briggs knows that change is to the new SATs as stress is to high school students.

But analogies are out and the widely dreaded essays are in as Briggs, a junior at Upper St. Clair High School, and other college-bound students nationwide take the revised SAT for the first time Saturday.

"I think it's going to be harder with the writing (test). There's going to be a lot more stress," Briggs said. "There's no analogies (on the test), so that's good."

The College Board, which administers the SATs, revamped the tests for the first time since 1994, adding the 25-minute essay section and higher-level math questions.

Students will be judged on a 2400 point scale -- 800 points each for writing, math and critical reading. The maximum possible score previously was 1600, equally divided between the math and verbal sections. The test will take up to 50 minutes longer -- 3 hours and 45 minutes.

The test was updated to align better with what students are being taught in classrooms and to reflect the necessity of good writing in college and the workplace, according to the College Board.

The changes affect the class of 2006 and beyond, although high school principals, guidance counselors, other administrators and students say colleges have been unclear as to what extent they will use the writing scores for admissions and placements.

Schenley High School junior Rebecca Novak scored an 1120 on the SAT in February and plans to take the new one in June to see the differences firsthand.

"I just wanted to take both the old one and the new one and see the difference in how I scored," said Novak, 17, of Polish Hill.

The Pittsburgh Public Schools student is vying for scholarships, planning to study civil engineering at Drexel University in Philadelphia and hopes the school will accept the highest score.

"No one really knows what to expect, and everyone is kind of scared," said Upper St. Clair High School junior Brittany Findley, 17, one of 80 students taking a five-week course at her high school to prepare for taking the test Saturday.

"It's a big change, especially the writing part. It's something everyone's going to have to get used to and practice before taking the test," she said.

The addition of the writing section is eliciting the most attention and angst from students.

"Oh boy, there's always room to improve, but I feel it's unnecessary," Richard DiSante, 17, an Upper St. Clair High School junior, said of the writing section. "We were already stressed enough to complete the old SAT."

SAT prep courses have proved beneficial at North Allegheny Senior High School, raising average scores from 1104 in 2003 to 1126 last year after the district revamped its approach to test preparation, said Lynn Kovacic, the district's director of special education and pupil services.

The high school is not giving the SATs Saturday, but students there are taking the prep classes now to get ready for the May 7 and June 4 exams, she said. Prep classes offered at area high schools and by private businesses are held for a fee and for varying lengths of time.

While enrollment in Upper St. Clair's prep course is up in advance of Saturday's exam, it's down at North Hills Senior High School.

"Our attendance is very, very low, interestingly enough, for the March 12 test," said North Hills guidance counselor Gina Farrell. About 200 fewer students than usual are taking the prep course for the new test, although about 200 more than usual took it before the November test, the last under the old SAT guidelines, she said.

"I think it's just a fear of change," she said.

Still, she and other area administrators -- from Upper St. Clair to Schenley to Peabody high schools -- say they expect their students to do well on the written section because it reflects what has been taught in Pennsylvania schools, and for years such writing tests have been part of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment exams.

Upper St. Clair principal Timothy Steinhauer said he likes the new SAT but believes the 25-minute limit for the writing section might not be long enough.

Thompson, the Schenley junior, said she plans to take a weekend SAT prep class at her high school. Unlike many of her peers, she expects the essay question to be the easiest part. It's the math questions that worry her, she said.

Students are not the only ones preparing.

The College Board is training graders nationwide who will score the first essays. Writers will be asked to take a position on a subject, then will be scored on how well they develop, support and present their ideas, said College Board spokeswoman Sandra Riley.

Organization, variety in sentence structure and vocabulary also will be judged. Spelling, grammar and punctuation will count but are less important than the other factors, Riley said.

Peabody High School acting principal Sophia Facaros likes the emphasis on having students make persuasive arguments.

"They have to convince people to believe in them," she said. Those skills are valuable when students apply for college or jobs or present themselves in public, she said.

Schenley High School Principal Howard Bullard said the emphasis on writing is a good thing. Although students taking the first test might be nervous to be the pioneers, "It'll be interesting to see how kids score," he said.

Schenley junior Shaina Thompson, 16, of the Hill District, is waiting until May to take the SAT.

"I wanted to take the test early, but I was scared. I was afraid I would fail," she said. "I want to see how the first group did, how it was for them. Was it stressful• Was it easy• Hard?"

Additional Information:

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For more information on the changes to the SATs, visit www.collegeboard.com

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