Scott Fleming, an incoming junior at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, is feeling anxious about a new Scholastic Aptitude test, or SAT, that includes a 25-minute essay.
“I’m not sure what the grading scale is going to be on it,” he said. “It seems really subjective.”
Sara Monteabaro, junior class president of San Marcos High School, doesn’t like the sound of it, either.
“How one writes doesn’t always reflect how smart or intelligent” one is, she e-mailed the News-Press.
But like it or not, essay questions are coming this school year to an SAT test near you. Seen by many as the gateway to the university of one’s choice, SATs are already a stressful reality for students.
Because it’s a period of transition, this year’s juniors have the choice of taking either the current test, the new test, or both. The current test will be offered from October through January. The new test debuts in March.
But the choice is misleading to those hoping to attend a University of California campus — the system will accept only the new test. Other schools, including USC, Stanford, Westmont College and Santa Clara University, will accept either test.
Besides an essay, the new test will add multiple-choice grammar questions and advanced algebra problems. It will eliminate analogies and quantitative comparisons. It will tack 45 minutes onto the three hours students currently have to take it. The top score will jump from 1,600 to 2,400.
The test was changed largely in response to criticism from the former head of the University of California system, who in 2001 made national headlines by questioning its usefulness. Then-president Richard Atkinson threatened to scrap the UC system’s reliance on the SAT, charging that it did not adequately reflect what was being taught in the classroom. It was unfair to some students, he said.
Mr. Atkinson’s arguments came amid widespread concern about the dip in enrollment of Latino and black students at UC Berkeley in the wake of California banning affirmative action in 1996.
“We should also adopt a more comprehensive, ‘holistic’ admissions process that takes a range of factors into consideration, from the quality of a student’s high school to the opportunities available to that student,” he wrote in an editorial for the Sacramento Bee.
With its esoteric analogies, the current SAT resembles an “old-fashioned IQ test which isn’t clearly tied to some kind of curriculum,” said Rebecca Zwick, a professor at the Gevirtz Graduate School of Education at UCSB.
By changing the test, the SAT’s owner — The College Board — brought it closer to the structure of the high-school exit exam, which is designed to test strictly what is learned in the classroom, she said.
But Ms. Zwick — the editor of a book named “Rethinking the SAT” — doesn’t think the new test will erase any ethnic inequities inherent in the old test.
In fact, “increasing the level of the math content might lead to greater differences,” she said.
In Santa Barbara, where 44 percent of the high school students are Latino, educators don’t expect the new test to significantly help or hurt the local student population.
“test taking is test taking,” said Mike Couch, interim principal of Dos Pueblos High School. “Statistically, you will end up with the same curve.”
The UC system, he said, is still looking to accept the top 12.5 percent of the state’s students.
Nonetheless, many individuals will be affected: Up to 50 percent of the district’s high school students typically take the SAT, although fewer than 20 percent of Santa Barbara’s students go on to attend four-year colleges, Mr. Couch said.
Meanwhile, most students are unaware of the changes, said Sara, the junior-class president at San Marcos school.
“I think it will be explained once school starts again, but for now, we as students are in the dark,” she wrote.
Still, the companies that provide SAT coaching — such as Kaplan and the Princeton Review — are experiencing unprecedented spikes in enrollment.
“This year Kaplan as a whole has seen the biggest enrollment in the history of the company,” said Krista Plaisted, Kaplan’s director of SAT programs for California. “We’ve seen a 78 percent increase in enrollment (in one year).”
Officials at both companies declined to provide local statistics, citing competitive reasons.
For the essay component, instructors at the Princeton Review are telling students to keep in mind the overwhelmed graders.
“They are going to be going through blocks and blocks of essays, all on the same subject,” said Katie Cabanatuan, director of Goleta’s Princeton Review. “The essays are being scored in about one to two minutes.”
Thus, presentation is key. Essays should be neatly written and broken down into about five paragraphs, she said. Students are encouraged to write long.
“They feel like if you have a lot to say, then you must know what you’re talking about,” she said. “It’s not an essay you’d want to turn into your AP English teacher.”
One thing that won’t change is the test’s attempts to trick the taker.
“The grammar kind of works against your ear,” she said. “A lot of things we hear every day are grammatically incorrect, but you don’t realize it.”
While Kaplan is advising students to take both tests, saying it can’t hurt to try twice, the Princeton Review advises taking it once, saying there is no point in stressing out about two exams.
At the end of the day, despite all the confusion and pressure, some students seem to be taking the dilemma in stride.
“I’ll basically just go with the flow,” said Travis Ahlstrom, a junior at Dos Pueblos. “I will talk to my counselor.”
ABOUT THE SAT
When and where:
The current SAT can be taken at Santa Barbara High School on Oct. 9 , Nov. 6, Dec. 4 and Jan. 22. The new SAT can be taken at San Marcos High School on March 12, May 7 and June 4.
Cost: $29.50 for the current test. The price for the new test hasn’t been established.
Register: First-time takers must register online through www.collegeboard.com, or through the mail by requesting that a registration bulletin be mailed to them. To do so, call SAT customer service at (609) 771-7600. Second-time takers can register over the phone.
An example of an essay question that would be on the new SAT:
Consider carefully the following statements and the assignment below it.
“Everything comes if a man will only wait.”
— Benjamin Disraeli, Tancred
“Destiny is not a matter of chance, it is a matter of choice; it is not a thing to be waited for, it is a thing to be achieved.”
— William Jennings Bryan, Memoirs
Do you agree that persistence is the major factor in success, and that talent, genius, and education play, at best, secondary roles? In an essay, support your position by discussing an example (or examples) from literature, science and technology, the arts, current events, or your own experience or observation.
An example of the multiple-choice grammar question that will be added to the “writing” section of the test:
The vast majority of New Yorkers who drink decaffeinated nonfat cappuccinos prefer chocolate for dessert.
Which word is incorrect?
e) no error
3. An example of an analogy question that will be eliminated from the test:
Iron : Wrinkle
(A) bleach : color
(B) mow : lawn
(C) sweep : broom
(D) cook : food
(E) build : model
(Answers: 2. C; 3. A)