- Associated Press - Sunday, March 6, 2016

BRIDGEPORT, Conn. (AP) - Connecticut high school juniors will be among the first in the nation to take the brand new SAT when it is given in school on Wednesday.

Katie Hoffkins, 17, a Fairfield Warde High School junior, admits to feeling pretty confident.

Having already taken the PSAT, the practice test for the college preparedness exam, in its old format as well as the new version, Hoffkins dubbed the second one easier.

“Because there is no vocab section anymore, because they allow you to guess, I got a higher score,” Hoffkins said.

Others remain uncertain what to expect.

“I feel prepared, but I also feel overloaded,” Justin Feliciano, a junior in the Information Technology Fairchild Wheeler Interdistrict Magnet School in Bridgeport.

Feliciano has studied in school, online, at home, with a practice book, and he even went to a Saturday prep class.

“I think it’s good we are taking it at school,” he said. “At least I am comfortable in that environment.”

While most others taking the new SAT for the first time will do so on March 5, Connecticut and New Hampshire public high school students start things off three days earlier.

Concerned about the number of tests many high school juniors take, Connecticut officials received permission from the U.S Department of Education last year to replace the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium standardized test with the College Board’s SAT.

The state will pay nearly $1.5 million to give the test to as many as 42,000 high school juniors. Those absent on the test day get one shot to make it up in April.

Since 85 percent of high school juniors in Connecticut take the SAT anyway, giving it instead of SBAC will cut down on testing overall. In announcing the new test last fall, Commissioner of Education Dianna Wentzell said it would focus on what students are learning in school and might encourage some to think about college as an option.

The redesigned SAT is supposed to be more aligned to the Common Core curriculum now being taught throughout the state.

The essay portion, introduced in 2005, is now optional and won’t be part of the test Connecticut students take in school. The basic test remains a three-hour, paper-and-pencil exam and will include a math section and verbal section, with a score that goes from 200 to 800 for each.

The verbal section does away with obscure vocabulary words but now has writing sections. Students will have to use evidence from reading passages in answers. The reading passages are more challenging and focus more on science, social studies and historical documents.

The math section is said to contain more straightforward questions, but harder ones. On the old test, students could hang onto the calculator throughout. On the new test, it is allowed on only some sections.

Also, the number of multiple-choice answers students can select from has shrunk from five to four per question. And guessing can no longer hurt you. Under the old test, points were deducted for wrong answers.

“I’m now telling them, don’t leave anything blank,” said Suzanne Beliveau, a retired Stratford math teacher who teaches an evening SAT prep class in conjunction with the town’s adult education program. “That is a huge shift.”

Students may be taking the new test in stride, but many continue to cram.

In addition to free, online tutoring offered by Khan Academy, paid test prep services remain popular. Hoffkins was among 30 students from throughout the area who spent the past four Sunday afternoons in a Carnegie Pollak prep course at Greens Farms Academy in Westport.

“Make sure you have a strategy when you go in,” said Peter Scotch, an English teacher leading the tutorial session. “Experiment and find what works best for you.”

Obscure vocabulary may be out, but grammar is not. Scotch drilled the class on commas, dangling modifiers and prepositional phrases for the better part of an hour - rules, that if learned, Scotch promised would lead to a better score.

“See a prepositional phrase? Just eliminate it in your mind,” Scotch said. “I have been teaching for 21 years. I am 48 and I still do little tricks like this in my mind.”

Marshall Spooner, helping students prepare for the math part of the SAT across the hall, said he used to have a boatload of tips and strategies to offer. Now he feels he’s teaching content.

“It’s more nitty-gritty math,” said Spooner, who teaches at Greenwich Country Day School during the week. “I felt like before it was middle-school math asked in tricky ways. Now it’s like straight out of an Algebra 2 course.”

Sarah Kulaga, 16, who lives in Fairfield and attends Lauralton Hall, in Milford, said to her, the hardest part is math.

“The new PSAT was a lot easier,” Kulaga said. “I’m hoping the new SAT will be, too.”

Lynn Carnegie, who runs the Greenwich-based test-prep company, is optimistic students will find the new test to be a good fit. Others aren’t so sure and are recommending that students who don’t have to take the test in March wait or take the ACT instead.

“I am just anticipating glitches,” said Janet Rosier, an independent college admissions consultant in Westport.

Rosier points out that scores for the first administration of the test aren’t expected out until May. With the old SAT, students had scores in hand in a matter of weeks.

David Kim, founder of C2 Education, another academic tutoring program with locations in Connecticut, said there is also angst over how the test will be scaled or curved.

“Where will the average score fall? No one yet knows,” Kim said.

Even so, Kim said the changes are a step in the right direction.

“If you are well-read, you will be better prepared for the new test than the old one,” Kim said.

Others disagree, and say the new test is little better than the old.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director for the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, predicts the redesigned SAT will not do a better job of predicting success in college.

“The ‘new’ SAT may look more consumer-friendly, but is not a better test,” Schaeffer said. “The face lift is largely marketing bells and whistles.”

To him, the new test is merely designed to compete with the ACT, another college readiness exam, and to slow a movement among hundreds of colleges to make the SAT optional for admissions decisions.

A number of college officials say they are happy with the changes.

“It is not possible to assess actual impact until after students have completed the test,” said Nathan Fuerst, director of admissions at the University of Connecticut. “That said, we are thrilled that the new SAT has also been adopted as the Connecticut statewide assessment for high school students, as we anticipate that this will eliminate just one more barrier for all students to consider attending college.”

“We have been told the new test is more meaningful,” added Karen Pellegrino, dean of enrollment at Fairfield University.

At Fairfield, submitting SAT or ACT scores is optional. More attention is paid to high school records. Still, Pellegrino said, she is looking forward to seeing what the new test will tell her.

So is Jeremiah Quinlan, Yale University’s dean of undergraduate admissions. He said that for years he has expressed the need for an SAT that is more open and transparent. While the jury is still out, Quinlan said it appears the College Board is finally listening.

“Getting ready for college should never be about tricks or last-minute cramming,” Quinlan said. “I believe that the redesigned SAT is on the right path in its transparency and openness, and that it sends the clear signal that if you work hard and achieve, we in higher education will work to open doors for you.”

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Information from: Connecticut Post, http://www.connpost.com

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