The long sigh of relief you hear in coming months may be high school juniors and seniors realizing that changes in the Scholastic Aptitude Test won’t ruin their college hopes. But first, they must decide how to prepare for the test, with the options ranging from commercial courses that cost hundreds of dollars to free or low-cost instruction in public high schools and colleges, which have updated their instructional materials for the new SAT.
Among the changes: The verbal portion of the test will no longer contain the dreaded antonym section, which forced many students to memorize long lists of words; it will test vocabulary in context. In the math section, instead of the traditional multiple-choice approach, there will be 10 problems students must work. Calculators will be allowed for the first time.
The revisions, announced in 1990 and heralded as the most important in almost 50 years, will be integrated into the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) in October, and into the SAT in March.
Yet they have panicked many freshmen, sophomores and juniors who will take the PSAT and the juniors and seniors who are signed up for the SAT, which is taken by about 1.9 million students each year and used in admissions processes by 76% of four-year colleges. “It bothers me because I’m in the first year of students taking the new test,” says Teresa Hsu, 16, a junior at San Marino High. “I don’t know what provoked them to choose my year. If the test is really stupid and bad, why didn’t they change it before?”
“I’m nervous and scared,” says Njieya Massudom, 16, a Hamilton High junior who arrived four years ago from Cameroon. “I heard that it’s hard.”
To reduce anxiety the College Board and people who offer courses to prepare students for the SAT are fine-tuning study aids for the new exam, renamed the Scholastic Assessment Test.
The College Board, the nonprofit association that sponsors the SAT, has published a 260-page guide that includes suggested strategies, practice questions and a practice exam. “Introducing the New SAT” is available in bookstores for $12.
Most SAT preparation courses will begin after the first of the year. They range from $645 courses from companies such as the Kaplan Educational Center or the Princeton Review to free classes in Los Angeles Unified School District high schools. Lengths of the courses vary from 12 hours to 12 weeks. New subject matter will include hints about using the calculator, marking the math answer grid and scrutinizing new reading passages.
“You want to bring a calculator that you’re familiar with. You don’t want to run out before the test and buy one with all sorts of fancy functions,” says Jerry Bobrow, director of Bobrow Test Preparation Services, which prepares SAT courses for high school students at California State University campuses and other schools.
Students will also be drilled on when to use a calculator. “We show them there are three types of problems: where using a calculator is an advantage, where it’s a wash, and where it slows you down,” says Howard Tager, director of Ivy West Educational Services, which provides private SAT tutoring.
Course leaders will also try to lessen concerns about a new math grid, which requires students to mark numbers and decimal points in columns and can be confusing.
“For example, you can’t grid in mixed numbers,” Bobrow says. “If your answer is three and a fourth, you’ve got to change that to the improper fraction 13/4 or to 3.25. If you grid in three and a fourth, the computer will read it as 31-fourths and you’ll get a wrong answer.”
In the verbal portion of the test, students will learn a technique for answering the 13 questions on paired reading passages.
“The first questions, say one to five, will deal with the first passage. Questions five to 10 will deal with the second passage. Ten to 13 ask the student to relate one passage to the next,” Tager says.
He recommends reading and answering questions about the first passage before reading and answering questions about the second passage and finishing with questions about both passages.
Students should also read new vocabulary questions in context, he warns. “Generally the answer will be a secondary or tertiary use of the word,” Tager says. “Our students will be trained to be leery of straightforward use.”
The College Board disputes the effectiveness of SAT preparation classes.
“They offer short-term preparation of limited value in improving test scores,” says a College Board representative.
“Good performance on the new test is highly responsive to reading widely, taking solid academic courses and preparing responsibly for the test by making use of authentic College Board preparation materials,” she says.
Classes can help, says Eva Baker, director of the UCLA Center for Study of Evaluation in the Graduate School of Education. “One way is (to teach) information that’s going to be on the test. You should have a sense of what the class of questions would be,” she says.
“Another way might be to learn strategies about how to answer the test questions. Another potential consequence might be that being in a situation like the test reduces the anxiety you have. For a number of people, anxiety is a real barrier to performance.”
Kathy McGuire, a continuing education specialist at UCLA Extension, has doubts about the cost effectiveness of expensive commercial courses.
“It comes down to how much instructional time is spent with the student,” says McGuire, who organizes SAT courses for high school students on the UCLA campus.
“In both Kaplan and Princeton, there is a lot of diagnostic testing. The question is how valuable is that time for the money spent, since students can take and score their own tests? There is certainly not a shortage of SATs out there.”
McGuire also says most leaders of commercial SAT preparation classes are not professional teachers and can’t teach students enough to get over a problem in reading or math.
“I think it does (help) if students are going to score well anyway,” she says. “Any familiarity with the test is going to have a positive effect. If students have learning problems or any specific difficulty with a section, if they’re not fast readers or are slow in math, I can’t say that these workshops would have a particularly beneficial effect.”
David Kwok, executive director of the Los Angeles Princeton Review, says his organization gives proctored, three-hour tests to make students comfortable with the exam.
“It’s good practice,” he says. "(When they take the SAT) they should feel like they’re just taking another Princeton diagnostic.”
The majority of Princeton instructors are graduate students and upperclassmen who “tend to be quite bright and knowledgeable and know how to impart material in a clever manner,” he says.
Kwok says Princeton graduates increase their scores by an average of 110-160 points in the course of the classes. Kaplan representatives offer similar figures.
Nevertheless, there is no data on what kind of SAT class is most effective, educators say.
“I don’t think data exists to look comparatively at which are the best,” says Joan Herman, associate director of the Center for Study of Evaluation in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA.
Hsu, the San Marino junior, solved her problem by taking a six-week PSAT course from the Princeton Review.
“I used to hear lots of rumors about this test,” she says. “I used to be really scared. Now that I’ve taken this class, I’m not intimidated by it.”
But many students may be unclear about the choice of classes or unable to take advantage of them.
Massudom, the Hamilton High junior, will participate in a $25, one-day SAT orientation at her school.
Massudom lives with her married sister, who is a student nurse, her uncle and four cousins. “My sister doesn’t have that much money,” she says.
Help Available for New SAT Here are some of the classes, tutoring services and study guides for the revised Scholastic Assessment Test.
* UCLA Extension will start a course in February on the new SAT. The on-campus class will cover 24 hours over three or four Saturdays. Tentative cost is $325 with some scholarships available. (310) 206-3340.
* USC will offer SAT courses throughout Los Angeles starting in July. The three half-day sessions will provide six hours of strategy for the English section and six hours for math. $135. (213) 740-2173.
* Cal State universities at Los Angeles, Dominguez Hills, Northridge, Long Beach and Fullerton will offer extension courses on the SAT starting in February. The three half-day sessions are usually on Saturdays. $115. (818) 225-8981.
* Los Angeles Unified School District high schools offer free classes on the SAT each spring. Students are tutored eight hours on the verbal section and eight hours on the math. Each of the 49 participating schools accepts about 70 juniors and makes its own schedule. Dependent on support from the LAUSD, corporations and foundations, the classes will need appropriate financing to continue. For information, phone neighborhood high schools.
* The Princeton Review will offer six-week preparation programs for the new SAT starting in January. The programs, offered throughout Los Angeles, include six lectures, six workshops and four practice tests. $645 (scholarships available). (310) 474-0909.
* The Kaplan Educational Center will offer courses for the new SAT starting in January. The courses, offered at eight Los Angeles locations, include seven classes, two workshops and three practice tests. Cost: $645 (scholarships available). (800) KAP-TEST.