Anxiety High Over New SAT

The newly overhauled version of the Standardized Achievement Test (search) debuting on Saturday has seriously ratcheted up the level of anxiety for teens and parents already stressed about the mysterious process of college admissions, according to testing experts.

"It's like walking into a sport without any equipment," said Adam Narkier, a 16-year-old high school junior from New York, who is taking the test this month. "We're like guinea pigs, since it's the first time, and nobody knows what will happen."

Companies that specialize in getting students prepared for the tests are seeing lots of worried college-bound teens and their parents.

"The changes to the test have caused a lot of confusion and consternation," said Jennifer Karan, national director of SAT and ACT programs for the Kaplan (search) test preparation company. "The result has been a large jump in the number of students taking practice tests and enrolling in courses and private tutoring,"

In the past year, Karan said the number of students taking Kaplan's free practice test has jumped 78 percent, while the Princeton Review (search), a Kaplan competitor, reports an increase of more than 100 percent in students taking their free test. Other prep companies have described similarly dramatic upticks in interest.

"Generally speaking, we have a culture of parents who are highly involved in [their] child’s college admission process, and this can translate into increased pressure on tests like the SAT," said Karan.

"Each year, more and more students compete for a fixed number of spots in selective colleges, and more students need top scores to get in. Because of grade inflation in a lot of high schools, the colleges are increasingly confused by student transcripts, and they are definitely looking with greater scrutiny at standardized test scores."

The companies report that they have changed their testing prep programs in response to the new test. The Princeton Review has published five new books about studying for the new SAT, while Kaplan says it has developed 28 practice tests and added online studying features.

Bob Schaeffer, the director of public education for the National Center for Fair and Open Testing (search), which is critical of the new test, said the uncertainty surrounding the SAT has exacerbated the frenzy over college admissions.

"What we have in high schools this year is the equivalent of an arms race," said Schaeffer. "Because the test has been changed it feeds the frenzy around testing and test prep. And parents and students, fearful that others are arming themselves to the teeth, end up spending huge amounts of money on these courses and tutors.”

First SAT Adapted From IQ

The SAT test dates back to 1926, when it was adapted by the College Board (search) from an IQ test used by the U.S. Army. It has evolved significantly since then, and was taken 2.8 million times by approximately 2.2 million American students last year.

The College Board said approximately 3 percent more people have signed up for the new test this year. The first new test will be given Saturday and most colleges will accept the results for students applying to college this fall. Some schools say they will still accept scores from the old test this year, but beginning in the fall of 2006, schools will only accept scores from the new test.

The new version of the SAT was created in large part as a result of a 2001 proposal by Richard Atkinson, a former University of California president, that the school stop using the test for admissions and develop its own exam for applicants. Charging that the old version of the test was skewed too much by its susceptibility to coaching, Atkinson said it rewarded students' verbal and math drills rather than the assessing the level of academic content they had learned in school.

In response, the new version of the SAT has eliminated the widely criticized verbal analogies section from the old test, and adds a writing section that includes a timed 25-minute essay (similar to the previous SAT: Writing Test). Multiple-choice grammar questions and short reading sections were added to the critical section and the math section has been changed to remove the quantitative comparisons from the old test and include more advanced algebra.

With these changes, the test has been lengthened from three hours to three hours and 45 minutes. The total score has been expanded from 1600 to 2400.

The College Board has characterized the new version of the test as "different, not harder" and it released information about it last fall to help students prepare. Atkinson has said he is satisfied that the new test will be a better measure of students' skills, and Harvard University President Lawrence Summers (search) recently called the new test a "strong step" toward better assessment.

"The new test is designed to be less coachable and to capture more accurately what students learn in school," said Summers in a November speech. "It also promises to demonstrate more clearly the kinds of skills students need to succeed, such as writing."

New Test Too Formulaic?

Many, however, disagree with Summers' rosy picture of the test. Schaeffer said that the new test's writing portion only encourages formulaic regurgitation, and the Princeton Review is so sure that the new test will be easier to coach that it has doubled its guarantee, whereby the company will work with students without a fee unless they see their score rise 200 points (the previous guarantee was for 100).

"I've never worked with anything easier to help people on," said David Benjamin Gruenbaum, author of "New SAT 2005: Inside Out." "I don't like to teach formulaic stuff, but this really lends itself to that."

Gruenbaum said that once they are able to learn a few tricks, the biggest stress he is seeing on students taking the new test is that they have had less time to prepare than students in past years. And he said that students who are strong in math are not happy with the new balance, which places more emphasis on verbal skills. Students taking the test said their biggest worry is simply that they are facing the unknown.

Flushing, N.Y., high school student Eric Lam, 16, said he's taken the previous PSAT and practiced on the old tests but he said he feels nervous about the addition of the essay portion of the test.

"It's weird to be studying like this," said Lam. "Nobody's actually seen what it's going to be like, but still everyone's aiming for that 2400."