The New SATs: Real Change or Just Cosmetics?

THIS Saturday, March 19, thousands of high school students across the nation will sharpen their No. 2 pencils and sit down to take the new Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), a revised version of the most common college-admission exam in the United States.

Still known as the SAT, the former Scholastic Aptitude Test has undergone more than a name change. And Saturday's test-takers will be the first to face the redesigned exam.

``The new test maintains the high, academically demanding standards of the old test'' yet recognizes the increasing diversity of students and the changes in how and what students are being taught in high school, says Donald Stewart, president of the College Board, which sponsors the test.

It has been 20 years since the SAT was significantly altered and the changes have increased the anxiety level among college-bound high school juniors and seniors who take the test.

Record numbers of students have signed up for test-preparation courses or professional coaching sessions that can cost up to $700. Stanley Kaplan and Princeton Review, the two largest coaching companies, say enrollment in their courses has increased by as much as 50 percent in the last six months.

The SAT will still be three hours long and divided into math and verbal sections. In the verbal portion, there is an increased emphasis on analysis and comparison. The reading comprehension section, now called critical reading, contains fewer but longer passages.

Antonym questions have been dropped in favor of vocabulary within the context of a sentence. And the Test of Standard Written English, 30 minutes of grammar and punctuation questions, has been replaced by an additional 15 minutes on both the verbal and math sections.

Changes on the math sections are more dramatic. Ten new math questions will require students to write in their answers rather than simply shade a bubble for a multiple-choice answer. For the first time, test-takers will now be allowed - but not required - to use calculators.

The changes have not quieted criticism of the SAT. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing (FairTest) in Cambridge, Mass., says that three-quarters of the ``new'' SAT is exactly the same. The changes in the exam are ``only cosmetic'' and do not address the test's fundamental bias against women and minorities, says Cinthia Schuman, executive director of FairTest.

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