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Plan for New SAT Wins Approval of College Board

June 28, 2002|REBECCA TROUNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — Trustees of the College Board voted unanimously Thursday to develop a new SAT, adding a writing test, beefing up the math section and making other major changes in the college admission exam.

The new test, to be given for the first time in March 2005, will include questions based on advanced algebra, not just algebra and geometry as it does now. It will replace verbal analogies with additional reading comprehension questions. And, most significantly, it will require each student to produce a handwritten essay as part of the new writing exam.

College Board President Gaston Caperton said the revamped SAT will improve on the existing test by ''placing the highest possible emphasis on the most important college success skills--reading and mathematics, and now, writing.'' He also said it will be more closely aligned with high school curriculum and state educational standards.

The SAT was taken last year by 1.3 million high school students, many of whom took it more than once in an effort to improve their scores, College Board officials said. The new test will cost students $10 to $12 more than the current one, which is priced at $26 this fall. It will also grow in length, from three hours to 3 1/2 hours.

And it will include a new feature that will give students and schools feedback after testing on ways to improve performance.

The decision to overhaul the SAT, a test that has assumed a larger-than-life role for students seeking entrance to the most competitive universities, was made in a meeting here of the College Board, a 31-member panel that includes college administrators, school superintendents and teachers.

The move was propelled in part by the University of California, the biggest client of the SAT, which had threatened to scrap the exam in favor of a test more closely linked with high school coursework. In a highly publicized speech last year, UC President Richard C. Atkinson publicly questioned the value of the test and said it was unfair to many students.

On Thursday, Atkinson said he was delighted with the College Board's decision and said plans for the new test appeared to meet the university's demands for change.

More broadly, he said, the new test, with its emphasis on writing and on strengthened math skills, could have a ''transforming'' effect on schools across the country.

''Early in their career, all students will understand the importance of writing,'' he said.

Caperton, a former governor of West Virginia who has led the nonprofit College Board for three years, acknowledged the role of the University of California in the changes announced Thursday. Given the prominence of the university and its 170,000 students, Caperton said, ''if we didn't listen to them, we'd have to be both arrogant and stupid.''

Caperton announced in March that the College Board was considering changes in the SAT.

But Bruce Walker, the director of admissions at the University of Texas and a College Board trustee, said it took the trustees some time to get used to the idea of overhauling the test, which was last revised, less significantly, in 1994.

He said he hoped students, parents and teachers would accept the changes and understand that they would connect the test more closely to high school coursework.

Meanwhile, makers of the rival ACT admission exam, taken by almost 1.1 million students last year, say their exam already tests what students learn in the classroom.

The SAT, the older of the two tests, has long been used by many of the nation's most elite universities and holds a strong advantage among schools on the East and West coasts.

The ACT is predominantly used in the states in the middle of the country.

''We believe that it's ironic that the [SAT] appears to be making changes that reflect what we have done for over 40 years,'' said Cynthia Schmeiser, vice president of the Iowa-based testing company.

Like the SAT, however, the ACT has not had an essay component. Earlier this year, it said it would develop an essay question for California college applicants.

Meanwhile, critics of the SAT and other standardized tests said the changes announced Thursday will do little to address what they called the SAT's fundamental flaws, including persistent racial gaps in scores.

The addition of a timed essay, in fact, will make the SAT even tougher for students who are not native speakers of English, said Bob Schaeffer, an official with the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, an anti-testing organization.

And overall, he said, the changes will continue to benefit upper-income students whose parents can afford to pay for test preparation services, not the lower-income or underprivileged students who may need them the most.

College Board officials blame the stubborn racial and, to some extent, gender gaps in SAT scores on the nation's unequal educational system and say the test itself is not to blame.

''The SAT is a very fair test,'' Caperton said.

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