- The Washington Times - Monday, February 10, 2003

The most important test a student may ever take is also the most unlike any he or she has ever faced. The Scholastic Assessment Test of reasoning, better known as the SAT I, can make or break a student's academic future. Yet, because the crucial exam does not test knowledge, students can't prepare for it the way they do for course exams.
The good news: Experts say the right preparation can bump test scores as many as 200 points.
Most colleges and universities ask prospects to take the three-hour SAT I, which tests reasoning and problem-solving ability by examining verbal and mathematical skill. A smaller number of schools also requires the one-hour SAT II test, which deals with specific subject areas, such as world history or biology.
The SAT I can be taken at various times in the year on seven Saturdays from October through April.
The SAT I, overseen by the New York-based College Board, will undergo a face-lift in 2005, with a greater emphasis on writing than its current incarnation. For now, students can take a number of steps to prepare for the next test, to be held April 5.
Why is the test such a hurdle?
Harriet Broder, who runs a test coaching service in Potomac for the verbal portion of the test, says the SAT I isn't strictly "content-based," as are many other tests students take.
"You can't study in the same way you study for a school test," says Ms. Broder, who has been coaching students for the past 25 years. "It tests one's thinking skills, reading skills, problem-solving skills."
Ms. Broder says students can start preparing by examining past SAT I tests. Then, she says, they can take advantage of some proven approaches to the test.
A common mistake students make, for example, is to fill in any blank on a tough question, hoping to guess at the right answer. A better way, she says, is to leave it blank. A guess might be in order if the student can narrow down the field of answers to only two possible solutions. Filling in the wrong answer costs students a quarter of a point.
For the verbal portion of the test, Ms. Broder says, memorizing vocabulary is the wrong approach.
That method offers only a scattershot chance of learning the "right" words, and it leads to test anxiety. Better, students should get comfortable with the various suffixes and prefixes that make up many words. The prefix "in" or "im," for example, means "not." So, if a word is unfamiliar but starts with those prefixes, the student can grasp the sense of the word.
"You can have an adequate vocabulary and get in the 600s," she says, which is a respectable score. A perfect verbal score would be 800.

Many factors beyond the SATs from overall course grades to volunteer and leadership work influence a college's decision to accept a student. But the SAT's importance can't be ignored, says Mark Greenstein, founder and lead instructor of Ivy Bound Test Prep, a tutoring group in West Hartford, Conn., that offers classes in Virginia and Maryland.
Mr. Greenstein says the SATs loom even larger than they did 20 years ago.
One reason is that many colleges today offer merit scholarships based, in part, on SAT I scores.
"Now, colleges want to compete with each other for talent," Mr. Greenstein says. "They're giving money for crossing a certain SAT threshold," like 1,200, 1,250 or 1,300 out of a possible 1,600.
One-on-one tutoring, obviously, can be a big boost to any struggling student, but that method is too expensive for many.
Mr. Greenstein suggests that parents contact their children's guidance counselor or principal to rally a group of local parents to help finance extra-help courses for their children beyond what the school may offer.
Students, not just parents, should be ready to pay for such classes.
"For what a kid will spend on pizza and beer the first semester in college, he can have an SAT class," he says.
He frowns upon looking on the Internet for self-help courses.
"I don't think they work very well. It's hard enough to get kids to come to class. To get them to diligently follow an online program is brutal," he says.
A less expensive way to prepare, particularly for the verbal portion of the test, is to spend about 10 minutes a night for up to six months before the test learning new words.

Test preparation services such as the Princeton Review, based in New York City, underscore the apparent inconsistencies of the test.
"Sometimes, the best students get lower SAT scores," says Ginny Muir, the director of local marketing for the Princeton Review's District office.
Tests like the SAT are a "necessary evil," Ms. Muir argues, since they can't accurately predict a student's college success.
That doesn't mean students shouldn't be ready for them.
She suggests that college-bound students wait until the summer before their junior year to begin preparing for the test.
"Any time before that is too early to start preparing," she says. "You don't have the necessarily skills."
Ms. Muir and other education experts say that a teen-ager's learning capacity grows throughout the high school years and that taking the test at an early age could prove disappointing.
Michael Hurwitz, a 17-year-old junior at Sidwell Friends School in Northwest, says the sheer volume of the test proved the biggest handicap when he took it in December.
"It was a lot longer than anything I've done before. That was the big difference. It wears on you mentally. Your neck starts to hurt from leaning over," says the Chevy Chase resident, who studied late last year with Ms. Broder. "I felt really drained by the end of it."
Michael began prepping for the SAT last summer, even though most of his classmates hadn't begun thinking seriously about it at the time. The math portion wasn't a concern, he says, since he found the material straightforward.
The verbal section and its long reading portions, however, gave him pause.
"I was mostly worried about the passages where you had to read it and understand it quickly and move on," he says.
He plans to take the test again this spring; knowing he could take the test several times helped settle his nerves during the first test, he says. Right now, he hopes to attend either Duke University or the University of North Carolina.
"I figure with those kind of schools, I have to have a really good SAT [score] to get in," he says.

Despite the stress SAT tests can provoke, the exams are valuable for colleges in assessing wave after wave of students, says Anna Pugliese Seltz, associate director of admissions at American University.
"You have such a large number of people applying. There's got to be some way to decrease the pool," Ms. Pugliese Seltz says. "We don't just look at the score and that's it … but we do have to set the bar somewhere."
A less than impressive test score, though, isn't the death knell for a student's college career, she says.
"If they're testing below average but everything else says this student is capable of doing the work," she says, "we might be willing to say 'yes' to the student."
Linda Clement, vice president of the University of Maryland at College Park, says SAT tests help assess how prepared students are for college-level learning.
They help admissions boards because school systems differ in quality and teaching styles, leaving admissions officers little way to judge one student from the next, says Ms. Clement, who also serves as chairwoman of the board of trustees of the College Board.
One advantage the SAT offers students is that it lets them take it several times, allowing colleges to see their best results. A student incurs no penalty for taking the test two or three times, she says.
"But more than three times is probably excessive, like having 18 letters of recommendation," she says.
One tip for parents: Encourage children to read even at a very young age, ideally following along with the same book themselves to inspire follow-up discussions.
"Reading makes people more critical thinkers," she says. "It's a powerful tool that parents have at their disposal."
Even if a student doesn't take a class, hire a tutor or buy any of the many self-help books on the SAT, he should at least familiarize himself with past tests, Ms. Broder says.
"If you can't do anything, at least do practice tests," she says.

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