SAT’s Big Multiple Choice

Times Staff Writer

As if the college admission process didn’t provoke enough anxiety, students in the high school graduating class of 2006 face a difficult choice: Which version of the high-stakes SAT test should they take?

Should they prepare for the old one with its dreaded verbal analogies? Or the new and longer one with its handwritten essay? Or both?

With the resulting stress and confusion, enrollments are spiking at test preparation classes.

“It’s a little hard to know what to do,” said Sasha Safarzadeh, 16, who will be a junior this fall at Villa Park High School in Orange County. “You feel like your whole future depends on this test.”

The teenager, who is enrolled this summer in an intensive SAT prep course, said he had decided lately to concentrate on the new exam because it is required by the University of California. He hopes to attend UC Berkeley, where his two brothers are undergraduates.


The longer, reportedly tougher version of the college entrance test debuts in March, after the old one is offered for the last time in January. In trying to decide which to choose, students in this transitional year are having to sort out varying advice from colleges, guidance counselors and others.

“Kids are getting all stressed out,” said Jon Zeitlin, general manager of SAT/ACT programs for Kaplan Test Prep, which, like its competitors, is seeing its business soar as a result of the new exam.

“The biggest thing I hear from the kids who are going to be juniors this year is, ‘Why do we have to be the guinea pigs?’ A lot of them are really nervous,” he said.

The revamped SAT will feature tougher math, expanded grammar and reading comprehension sections and, for the first time, an essay for which students will get 25 minutes to write replies to such questions as, “What is your view on the idea that it takes failure to achieve success?” No longer will the test include verbal analogies (clay is to potter as stone is to sculptor) or quantitative comparisons.

The total time of the test will jump 45 minutes, to three hours and 45 minutes. And the best possible score will rise to 2400 from 1600.

The revisions, announced in 2002, were largely propelled by the UC system, which had threatened to scrap the test as an admissions requirement. Former UC President Richard C. Atkinson had criticized the exam as unfair to many students and said it tested ill-defined notions of college aptitude.

Now, UC will require its 2006 applicants to submit scores from the new SAT, or from the ACT, a rival test less widely used in California. Test results are just one component that UC campuses consider, along with grades, high school courses taken and extracurricular activities.

But USC, UC Berkeley, Stanford, Yale, Columbia, Rice, Santa Clara University and many other institutions of higher education nationwide say either SAT is all right for the 2006 freshman class, with some saying they will consider the higher score if a student submits results from both.

For some of those schools, including USC and Duke, students who choose to submit scores from the old, essay-less SAT must also take a separate exam in writing.

“We want the writing,” said L. Katharine Harrington, USC’s admissions director. “It gives us another tool with which to evaluate students.”

Pomona College also will be flexible for the 2006 class. But admissions Dean Bruce Poch said he planned to ask the College Board, the SAT’s owner, to send him copies of applicants’ SAT essays, not just their scores. “It’ll give me a sample of writing I can lay side by side with their [application] essays,” he said.

And the California State University system, which now recommends but doesn’t require the SAT for most of its campuses, will allow applicants for the 2006 year to submit scores from either version. Cal State officials say the writing part of the new test, if submitted, will be used for placement, not admission, purposes.

College Board officials said a similar situation arose for the class of 1995, with a new test and a brief period of choice. The new change is more dramatic because, among other things, it adds the writing sample. Although it is too early to tell what this year’s juniors will do, a decade ago a majority opted for the new SAT of that time, a spokeswoman said.

Uneasy members of the class of 2006, meanwhile, are racing to get ready for the new test, signing up for free practice exams and filling preparation courses at a pace well ahead of the norm.

The test prep companies say the new SAT actually lends itself more to coaching than the previous one, even with the essay.

The Kaplan service won’t release its own course figures but said the number of students nationwide who took its free practice tests and workshops in the spring was up 78% from last year.

In Southern California, the Princeton Review test preparation company said the number of students enrolling in its summer SAT prep classes was running almost double that of last year. Parents pay $1,000 or more for the courses, which range from six to 10 weeks.

“We’re experiencing our largest enrollment boom ever, for a test that’s still nine months off,” said Paul Kanarek, who runs the company’s Orange County office. “It’s wild.”

Some students, like Sasha, are signing up for intensive preparation programs that amount to at least twice the usual number of classroom hours for such courses: 80 hours spread over 10 weeks. And that doesn’t include the homework.

On a recent afternoon in a stark, gray classroom in Irvine, Princeton Review instructor Carmen Schmidt drilled a dozen students in coordinate geometry. After an especially complicated problem, a boy in the front row groaned.

“Do they actually have questions like that on the test?” the teenager asked. “Absolutely,” replied Schmidt, 24, a UC Irvine graduate. “And you need to learn them.”

Afterward, Danielle Dunn, 16, said she thought the intensive course would give her more confidence as she approached the new test.

“I do pretty well in school, but I’m not a great test-taker,” said Danielle, who will be a junior this fall at Corona del Mar High School in Newport Beach.

Sasha has his own high hopes for the class. “You spend your whole summer, but then your future is set out for you,” he said. “You get into a good college and then a good career, and your whole life is set.”

As to which version of the test to take, Princeton Review urges students to spend their time and energy preparing for the new one, partly because that will allow them to wait until the spring of their junior year before suffering through the exam.

“If it was a good idea in general for first-semester juniors to take the SAT, we would have recommended it,” said John Katzman, the company’s founder and chief executive. “But it’s not good for kids’ psyches to take the test so early, and, strategically, they’re not ready either. They’re much better prepared at the end of junior year than the beginning.”

Kaplan Test Prep, by contrast, encourages students to take both, especially if they’re applying to a number of competitive colleges.

“We tell kids they’ve got nothing to lose,” Zeitlin said.

The exam’s official practice test, the PSAT, will debut in October with its own new version, College Board officials say. The changes to the PSAT largely mirror those to the SAT but without the essay.

The College Board is advising students not to get overly worried about the SAT writing test, and to take the test for the first time in the spring of their junior year. Then, if they don’t do well, they can take it again in the fall of senior year. The SAT is given seven times an academic year, the first in October and the last in June.

“Take the test when you’re best prepared and when you have the time to devote to preparation,” said Wayne Camara, the College Board’s vice president of research and development. He said that could range from taking prep courses to looking over the free test booklet sent to all students who register.

Many college counselors, too, are urging students to relax, saying too many are focusing on standardized tests at the expense of their coursework and other activities.

The best preparation for the SAT, new or old, is for students to do as well as possible in their classroom work, said Linda Conti, a high school guidance counselor and current president of the Western Assn. for College Admission Counseling.

“Just enjoy your high school experience and be passionate about it,” Conti, of Oaks Christian School in Westlake Village, said she advises her students. “Whatever you do, don’t miss out on some of the best parts of your lives because of an obsession with the SAT.”



Changes in a rite of passage

The current SAT

Total test time: Three hours

Sections: Three math, three verbal and one unscored experimental*

Scores: 400-1660

The new SAT

Total test time: Three hours, 45 minutes

Sections: Three math, three critical reading, one writing (including 25-minute essay and 35-minute multiple choice) and one unscored experimental*

Scores: 600-2400

Example of new essay question:

Think carefully about the issue presented in the following excerpt and the assignment below.

The principle is this: Each failure leads us closer to deeper knowledge, to greater creativity in understanding old data, to new lines of inquiry. Thomas Edison experienced 10,000 failures before he succeeded in perfecting the lightbulb. When a friend of his remarked that 10,000 failures was a lot, Edison replied, “I didn’t fail 10,000 times, I successfully eliminated 10,000 materials and combinations that didn’t work.”

Myles Brand, “Taking the Measure of Your Success”

Assignment: What is your view on the idea that it takes failure to achieve success? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience or observations.

Example of verbal analogy now being eliminated:

Clay: Potter:

A. stone: sculptor

B. machines: mechanic

C. hems: tailor

D. bricks: architect

E. chalk: teacher

(Correct answer: A)

On the current SAT, exponents are restricted to positive integers. The new SAT will have expressions involving negative exponents:

If x-3 = 64, what is the value of x1/2?

A. 1/4

B. 1/2

C. 4

D. 8

E. 16

(Correct answer: B)

Example of a quantitative comparison being eliminated:


Column A Column B

x+1 0

x -- 1

A. The quantity in Column A is greater.

B. The quantity in Column B is greater.

C. The two quantities are equal.

D. The relationship cannot be determined from the information given.

(Correct answer: B)

*Questions being tried out for possible use in later tests.

Source: College Board