- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 12, 2005

An anticipated 300,000 high school students will take the new SAT test today, which for the first time has a 25-minute essay that counts for one-third of the score — the most significant change to the college admissions exam in a decade.

The test that 3 million college aspirants, mostly 11th graders, will take in the next several months also has a tougher math section that includes advanced algebra and eliminates quantitative comparisons.

Brian O’Reilly, executive director of SAT information services at the College Board in New York City, said to avoid subjectivity in scoring student essays, a network of professional readers “will be told to read supportively what a student wrote, not what he didn’t write.”

Two expert readers, who will “ignore handwriting, grammar or spelling errors until they get so egregious you can’t make sense of what a student is saying,” will grade each persuasive essay independently, he said. If the readers disagree by more than one point, a third reader will issue a score.

Adding the essay and giving it equal weight with traditional sections, math and verbal, has increased the maximum score to 2,400, up from the 1,600 that had become synonymous with perfection.

The essay requirement has prompted a boom of practice writing and coaching lessons in schools across the country, according to a survey by Education Week.

“While even the SAT’s harshest critics agree that some of the changes are for the better, they are quick to argue that the College Board has failed to address what critics see as one of the most basic problems with college admissions tests: Students can be coached to beat them,” the newspaper reported.

Mr. O’Reilly said: “Practice is helpful, but it comes to a point of diminishing returns.”

In its last major change in 1994, which sparked some criticism, the board permitted students to use calculators and added open-ended questions to the math portion of the test. More critical-reading passages were added to the verbal section while antonyms were eliminated.

The new test’s verbal section also has added short critical reading passages but eliminated analogies.

First administered in 1926, the SAT was called the Scholastic Aptitude Test and measured an innate ability rather than knowledge acquired through formal education.

Today’s SAT, which college and universities use when determining admissions, does not measure any innate ability but a student’s “developed reasoning,” according to College Board officials.

Disagreement exists between educators and psychologists about whether the SAT is a good predictor of how students will do in college because the test only measures a small number of skills and habits necessary to do well in school.

“Since ‘re-centering’ a decade ago, SAT has lost its once-serious value as a barometer that measured real decline since 1963,” said William J. Moloney, state education commissioner in Colorado.

“Mavens of political correctness finally broke SAT’s attachment to genuine quality. ACT [a competing college admission test] historically never measured up to SAT, and only looks better now since SAT has gone downhill,” Mr. Moloney said.

Mr. O’Reilly said “nothing has been lost in terms of trend information and scores discriminating between students” as a result of “re-norming” the scoring system in 1994.

“The reason for re-norming the SAT was to bring the middle of the score scale to where the middle of the population was,” he said. “The original scale was written in 1941, when only 10,000 students took the SAT. That was a pretty able group. Nearly everyone who graduates now takes the SAT, so scores were so spread out at the top.”

Before the 1994 change, students at the high end of the scale improved their score from 720 to 750 with just one more question answered correctly, he said, while students at the bottom of the scale had to answer two more questions correctly to improve their score 10 points.

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