Members of the high school class of 2006 in Montgomery County could hardly be blamed for considering themselves guinea pigs. But Wootton High School Principal Michael Doran prefers to think of his juniors as “pioneers.”
Either way, students planning to apply to college have no choice but to embrace change. Already the first class to be subject to Montgomery County Public Schools’ new grading policy, most of them will also be part of the first group to take the “new” SAT — a longer version of the college admissions test that includes a 25-minute essay and more advanced math questions.
The new test,— with a maximum score of 2400 replacing the old perfect score of 1600 — will be conducted for the first time March 12. Since most college applicants take the test in the spring of their junior year, all but a few early birds will take on the new format. Many of those who did take the test early are left guessing — or inquiring — about which version competitive colleges will accept.
The effect of the changes for admissions is unclear. The College Board — the organization that administers the test — contends that the math and critical reading sections of the new test correlate directly to the math and verbal sections of the old version. But the bottom line is that scores on the new, three-section test will be without precedent. How good is a 1200? A 1600? What is the median score for Ivy League admits? No one knows.
“As far as how [colleges] will actually use the scores, we’re hearing different things,” said Sandra Riley, a College Board spokesperson. Some schools will use the new scores in admissions decisions and others will only consider them in placement decisions, she said.
"I think the College Board made some nice improvements and some important improvements," said Lee Stetson, dean of admissions at the University of Pennsylvania. "Obviously we're going to study over the years. It will take a while to see what the changes have meant."
Stetson said that since Penn, along with many other highly competitive schools, already required the SAT II Writing subject test, the inclusion of the essay section really just repackages the test requirements.
As for the writing samples themselves, "We’re still working with how we will make use of them," he said. "We do believe that students should be able to write and write concisely."
"We’re not wedded to tests alone in making decisions anyway," Stetson said. Asked whether SATs really do predict college performance, as they were designed to do, he said, "SATs alone are not necessarily a good predictor. But when you combine those with performance in a classroom, they give us a good idea of how they’ll perform in the first year. ... It doesn’t necessarily give us a good idea of how students will do in the long run."
“Despite public hype, the SAT scores are really just one factor among many” that admissions officers consider in making decisions and that they are most useful in combination with a student’s high school grades, Riley said.
“It’s hard for colleges to know what an ‘A’ means from [one] school and a ‘C’ means from another school,” she said. In other words, the value of standardized tests is the very fact that unlike grades they are standardized. But is that also their biggest weakness?
“There’s always ways to beat the test and there’s always ways to coach kids to perform better than they would if there was no coaching,” said Ann Dolin, president of Vienna, Va.-based Educational Connections, a tutoring company.
That the SAT is “beatable” is a long-standing criticism. But Dolin was generally supportive of the changes to the test.
“I think they’re all really positive changes,” she said. “It will definitely have a trickle down effect into education in high schools and there will be more writing education in preparation for this test. I think the criticism is that you’re teaching kids to write in such a structured way that there’s not a lot of room for [creativity]. But at the same time its gotten kids to write that would have not been writing. … You’re upping the curriculum by adding writing standards.”
The trickle-down effect to high school curricula is exactly what the College Board had in mind. “It’s really looking at education and [asking], ‘What are we leaving out? ‘What are we focusing on?’” Riley said. We’re hearing from the business community that college graduates are out in the workforce and they don’t have the writing skills that they need … We hope that adding writing to the SAT is one step in a larger process.”
Some say that process hinged on a 2001 speech by the then-president of the University of California system in which he suggested that the system might stop requiring the SAT of its applicants. A writing section was among the reforms that he mentioned.
“The College Board certainly paid attention to what the University of California said. As a membership organization, that’s what we do,” Riley said, but California’s influence was just one factor among many in making the changes. She said that the College Board had been eyeing a writing section for years, dating back to the 1990 recommendations of a blue-ribbon panel it convened to advise on the test. Only recently has administering the written section nationally become practical, thanks to the ability to disseminate the responses over the Internet.
Despite approving of the revamped test, Dolin said she’s sure the changes are reactionary: “People were happy with the old test. There weren’t a lot of feathers ruffled. So I can’t imagine why they would change it.”
THE CLASS OF 2006 has had to scramble to adapt. More than 200 Churchill students took a practice version of the new test Feb. 18 and Wootton has held several meetings for parents to discuss the changes.
Churchill junior Vincent Chen said he was “indifferent” to most of the changes following Saturday’s practice test, though he might be more worried if he were a weak writer. “I think largest complaint is that it’s too long. Because it was already long to begin with,” he said.
Albert Tzeng, also a junior, had the same analysis. “I think it’s harder because it’s longer and if it’s longer you’re … under more pressure.”
“I suppose the people who are freaking out about the new SAT would have been freaked by the old one,” said Amy Hunsberger, one of the organizers of the practice test. “Frankly people are more up in arms about that [new MCPS grading policy.]”
Doran said that while the school wants to acknowledge the changes to the test, it has tried not to overreact.
“We’re not fearing it. And to tell you the truth I’m personally not sorry that the analogies are out of there. And I think the fact that we’ll be looking at kids writing is a plus,” he said. “We teach writing much more than we taught analogies.”
His biggest concern was that for less confident students, fears about the test would become a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Most importantly, the school is keeping the importance of the SAT in perspective.
“We should be preparing them to be good musicians and good thespians and good artists and good soccer players as well as good test-takers,” Doran said. “Our kids will be ready. And if they’re not, I’ll move back to England.”