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Students, area school staff embrace changes to SAT

Pablo Muñoz is no stranger to academic rigor. And don't expect him to shirk additional work. As many cheered sweeping changes to the SAT -- such as the optional essay -- the 15-year-old Loyola High School sophomore is likely not to skip that portion.

"I would probably do the essay because I think it could give me a slight edge over test takers," he said. "I think it might be a gateway for students to shortchange themselves" if they don't write the essay.

For Pablo, it all comes down to showing colleges he's a dedicated student.

But so are many other students who find the overhaul of the SAT's structure and content beneficial to their aspirations of attending college in the coming years. In addition to the optional essay, the College Board announced plans Wednesday to condense the college-entrance exam from two to three sections, capping the highest possible score at 1,600. Reading sections will focus on words students will use again in college and beyond.

Claudia Gossard, a counselor at John C. Fremont High in South L.A., called the changes "beneficial" to the school's predominantly Latino student body. She's worked at the school for 14 years and seen students, many of whom considered English a second language, struggle with the SAT's vocabulary.

"That can put them at a disadvantage," Gossard said. "This change will be beneficial to our students."

She also applauded the College Board's new partnership with Khan Academy to offer a free series of practice exams and videos on successful test-taking practices. Gossard said many students can't take advantage of the costly tutoring or test-prep offered by the Princeton Review or Kaplan Test Prep. At least 80% of Fremont's student body qualifies for free or reduced price lunch, a poverty indicator, Gossard said.

College Board officials said the overhaul will better align exams with what students learn in high school and will need in college. Loyola High's assistant principal of student life and director of student counseling, Paul Jordan, described the move "as less stressful for students."

"Some students feel they need to do more to prepare for these tests instead of just going to school. It creates an extra layer of learning," Jordan said. "I like the concept of coming back to where the high schools are."

So do district staff and teachers within the Arcadia Unified School District. Leslie Klipstein, an English teacher at Arcadia High, praised the College Board's decision to count only correct answers and not dock points for wrong ones, noting "less fear" for test-takings students. She said the overall SAT changes align with ongoing efforts to teach students real-life skills, not test-taking ones.

"It's validation for what I do," Klipstein said. "I'm excited [that] what I teach every day will be relevant to the college process."

And college is already on the mind of 15-year-old Elias Saravia. The sophomore at North Hollywood High School has Stanford University in his sights. He was delighted by the thought of the SAT honing in on material he learned in high school.

"Now, there will be things I learned in math class or English," Saravia said. "That can increase my chances of going to Stanford."

Changes to the SAT are slated for spring 2016.

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Twitter: @AliciaDotBanks

alicia.banks@latimes.com

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