Balance needed in taking and interpreting SATs

The students have been advised to get a good night's sleep and to bring two sharpened pencils, but most can think of other ways they'd rather spend a Saturday morning.

Even so, they assemble in assigned areas where a school-appointed proctor guards an attendance list, a stack of tests, a stopwatch, a reserve supply of pencils, and tissues for emergencies.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) ritual in which they are participating is unvarying. Roll will be taken and the names of absentees noted. Tests will be distributed and instructions read.

Designed to provide colleges with an estimate of a student's academic ability , the SAT score is used in combination with a student's college application, high school record, teacher and personal recommendations, and participation in extracurricular activities in making college admission decisions.

Contrary to the excessive emphasis placed upon the SAT score by some parents and school administrators, most colleges and universities, including those that are highly selective, consider it only one indicator of how well a student will do in their institution. Recognition of this could relieve some of the pressure students feel as they confront the SAT. For first-timers, even the procedure of filling in their names in the style necessary for eventual computer transposition is bewildering. No one is allowed to open the test until all have completed the preliminary chores.

The ordeal of following directions exactly and of responding well to questions that often seem ambiguous - if they were too easy, what would the test test? - descends upon the test-takers.

In high schools throughout the United States, SAT tests are given to seniors in the fall and to juniors in the spring. The remaining dates for the tests this spring are March l9, May 7, and June 4. (Sophomores can ''try out'' the testing procedure by taking the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test.) Some students take the test more than once in hopes of improving their score.

Of 3 million high school seniors who will graduate this year, 1 million, or two-thirds of the college-bound, have participated in the College Board's Admissions Testing Program, which includes the SAT, the Student Descriptive Questionnaire, and for some the Achievement Tests.

The SAT has three parts: One measures verbal reasoning, vocabulary, and reading comprehension; another measures reasoning ability in arithmetic, algebra , and geometry; the Test of Standard Written English measures knowledge of grammar, usage, sentence construction, and some punctuation.

SAT scores provide a general nationwide gauge of certain skills (test-taking, for one). It should be remembered that scores are far from the sole determinant of whether a good education is being offered and received.

Many students protest that they could have performed better on another day or on another test or in another place, and undoubtedly that is true.

But whatever reservations one may hold about such tests as indicators of an individual's performance or potential, they do identify talents that may have been submerged by economic, geographic, ethnic, or personal circumstances. Because the tests are administered nationally, students receive from their scores some indication of the type of college or university from which they are most likely to benefit.

Admittedly, there are many dangers inherent in using test scores as a sorting process. And the strong temptation to lean on the scores to support any pet theory in education constitutes another danger. Efforts to conform education to what can be tested on the multiple-choice format of the SAT would surely short-circuit many good educational goals.

But scores can help schools and individuals assess their performance relative to that of other schools and other individuals and might lead to some revision of teaching and learning methods which would be helpful.

Further, the analysis of test scores helps colleges and universities understand what programs and interests will match the needs of entering students.

Students and their parents often ask whether it is possible to increase SAT scores by specific preparation.

The National Academy of Sciences in Washington last year issued a report, Ability Tests: Uses, Consequences and Controversies, which indicates that short-term drill and practice are not very effective in improving test scores and that longer-term preparation can have more effect as it develops the skills that are tested. The report recommends that schools ''routinely take such steps as necessary to ensure that students are familiar with test-taking techniques.''

The local library, bookstore, and guidance counselor's office in most high schools all have workbooks prepared by commercial publishers for self-instruction in SAT test-taking.

The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) last year introduced a program for high schools to use in helping students get ready for the tests. The NASSP has organized its course in three forms: a workbook, video tapes, and computer programs.

Says Scott Thomson, executive director of NASSP, ''There has been a change of opinion over the past five years that preparation for admission tests can help students. While relatively few high schools provide training, there are many, many commercial programs on the market. We believe that all students should have access to this training and not just those whose parents can afford tuition for commercial programs.'' The NASSP program has been field-tested on approximately 350 students.

Jay Comras, who developed the NASSP materials, says that the program teaches cognitive skills, not just test-taking skills. ''Our program explains to students what an antonym is, how to determine relationships between words, the history of language development, and roots and prefixes. Our program is based on instruction.''

Obviously a school in which such subjects are covered in the English courses has less need of a special test-preparation course than one where such subjects are not adequately covered.

Urban schools in particular might find this program helpful. Although during the past six years the gap between scores achieved by minorities and by whites has steadily narrowed, in 1982 the SAT averages for whites and blacks were still separated by more than 100 points (average white score, 483; average black score , 366). George H. Hanford, president of the College Board, cautions that the magnitude of the difference in scores ''reflects an educational deficit which the nation must overcome.''

The present commendable emphasis on raising the quality of education in American high schools will mean little unless it extends to all students in all high schools.

It is in alerting educators and the public to inequalities in education such as this that SATs may perform their most useful function.

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