An altered rite of passage for US teens

This weekend marks the unveiling of the latest variable in the nation's college admissions equation - the new and possibly improved Scholastic Aptitude Test, to be offered for the first time Saturday, March 12.

While the test may be different, a constant remains: Worried high schoolers here and across the country see the exam as a possible boost - or barrier - to their future hopes and dreams. When they turn up bright and early Saturday morning, they will be armed not only with graphing calculators but also with a wide range of personal concerns.

Junior Jennifer Toyzer, of Havertown, Pa, hopes to score 60 points higher than she did on her last try, thus improving her chances of getting into the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School of Economics or Georgetown University.

Tom McLaughlin, of Glen Mills, Pa., taking the test for the first time, dreams of a perfect score - what used to be a 1600 on the old test. For Tom, it's an important step on the way to achieving his dream of studying film. Lauren Walder, of Exton, Pa., another first-timer, simply hopes to hone her test- taking skills so she'll get a good score the second time she takes the exam.

"No one really knows what to expect," says the Bishop Shanahan High School junior, who plans a career in health-care.

The revamped version of the SAT, which will be taken by an estimated 1.4 million of the nation's 5 million high school seniors, incorporates a widely debated 25-minute essay writing section, leaves out the traditional vocabulary- and association-sensitive analogies section, and on the math side brings in advanced algebra.

The test - which once took three hours - will now be a whopping 3 hours 45 minutes long, this on a Saturday morning, a time when many high-schoolers want to score nothing more than a couple of extra hours of sleep.

"It's daunting," says Linda Milliken, reading specialist for the Chester County (Pa) Intermediate Unit, who teaches test preparation courses at the county's public high schools. "To me it's a test of endurance."

For teachers like Ms. Milliken, the new exam has already meant extra work.

This year, as always, she says, her students are a mixed bag in terms of their energy and ambition. One needs the lure of a butterscotch candy to be coaxed back into class after the break, she says, while others are driven and complain if they are cheated out of a moment of valuable test-prep time. "If my class ends at 5 o'clock, and we start to get ready to leave at five of, they want that extra five minutes," she says.

But what has been different for Milliken has been the number of students she has faced. Normally turnout is light in the spring, with her class usually topping out at 15 participants. This year, however, 46 turned up for an initial SAT prep class she gave at suburban Downingtown High School.

"With unfamiliarity comes uncertainty," says Milliken.

Kaplan Test Prep and Admissions has seen a 78 percent jump in the number of students taking its free practice test, says Jennifer Karan, national director for SAT and ACT programs. Also, for the first time ever more juniors than seniors have been taking the prep class.

Revenues are up in all segments of the test-preparation market, says J. Mark Jackson, senior analyst at Edventures, a market research firm, including classes, online materials, and in particular printed SAT study materials.

Teachers in high schools as well as prep courses report a new emphasis on writing skills of late, with a particular focus on effective time management for the short persuasive essay. Kaplan's class teaches students to divide their time carefully to include an understanding of the question, planning, and proofreading, as well as writing itself, according to Karan.

She says the firm also highlights the relative importance of specific math skills to the overall test score. Triangles, for example, "are worth an incredible number of points," she says.

Some students are viewing the new exam with confidence. It has caused little consternation at the elite, all-girls Baldwin School in Bryn Mawr, Pa, where SAT scores are traditionally well above average and where tuition is just under $20,000 a year.

Director of college counseling Pam Fetters explains, "We have always had a very writing-intensive curriculum," adding that virtually all students traditionally took the old SAT II writing test, which many consider the model for the new essay section.

Like others who work with high schoolers, she views test scores as but one component of the college admissions process.

But there's no denying that no matter how spiffy a student's résumé, numbers talk.

"The emphasis [on test scores] is not misplaced," says Sarwat Iqbal, whose daughter Zarah, a junior at Baldwin, is set to take the new SAT Saturday. A strong SAT score can positively affect everything that follows in the college admissions process, she says.

But some students have reached the point where they're ready to be done with the pretest jitters and simply take the exam.

Tom McLaughlin says he's more of a numbers guy and less a whiz with words. That's why he practiced writing essays this spring. Despite the extra practice, however, he remains worried about the time limit within which he must write on the test.

"But you try to pace yourself," he says. His chief concern at the moment is getting a good night's sleep on Friday. The new test, he predicts, "may not be without fault, but overall, it will be OK."

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