Panic over SAT scores - in the former USSR?

In the United States, high school juniors are busy attending prep classes and memorizing lists of vocabulary words to prepare for their SAT exams. In post-Soviet Georgia, however, students aren't sure exactly what to do.

This Sunday, a selected number of Georgian high school students will be taking a pilot version of a new standardized exam designed to determine which students will be admitted to the country's universities.

The actual exam will be administered in July and will mark a milestone for Georgia. Never before has a standardized national exam been linked to university admissions.

Many Georgians are not sure they're going to like the new system.

Universities there will no longer be free to choose whom they admit - a big change in a country where schools have always administered and graded their own entrance exams, often accepting bribes to push through less-competitive students. Now, admissions will be decided by the numbers alone.

The test itself is largely a US import. It will be designed and administered by the Educational Testing Services (ETS) of Princeton, N.J., creators of the SAT.

It's not the first time the ETS has brought US-style standardized testing and other educational services to foreign shores. The ETS works in Latin America and also in other former Soviet-bloc countries such as Serbia, Macedonia, and Russia.

"What you see now in almost every country in the former Soviet Union is that they establish an agency or an institution for standardized testing," says Steven Bakker, ETS Europe Team Leader for Georgia and head of similar ETS projects in Lithuania, Romania, Poland, and others.

In 2002, the Georgian government hired ETS and American Councils to help create the National Assessment and Examinations Center (NAEC) in Georgia, which developed the exam.

The exam has four parts. It tests general ability; foreign-language skills; Georgian language and literature; and advanced math. Except for math, all parts of the exam are mandatory for university admissions.

Each Georgian university will be free to determine how much weight it will give to the different sections of the test.

To date, 32,000 students have registered for the July test, 6,000 fewer than originally expected. And Georgia's Ministry of Education says it is braced for formal complaints from about 30,000 of them.

The 17,000 top scorers will receive a voucher to choose among five universities. Four thousand students will also receive full-tuition scholarships.

The new test is just one of a host of reforms initiated by Minister of Education Alexander Lomaia meant to reduce the notorious levels of corruption in Georgia's educational system.

Despite these positive changes, Mr. Lomaia has become one of the most derided figures in Georgia. Caricatures of him decorate walls of buildings. Accusations fly that he is a foreign agent and an enemy of his country.

But some suggest the real reason Lomaia is under attack is the unspoken one: People are scared.

"Students are used to the ethos of the Soviet system. They don't understand the concept of achievement tests," says Timothy Blauvelt, director of American Councils Georgia and field officer for NAEC and ETS in Georgia.

In March, hundreds of high school students staged hunger strikes to protest the dismantling of the old system, which had allowed many of them to begin university without taking entrance exams.

But there are also students relieved by the introduction of a new system. "Before, they would try to fail you so that you would have to pay," says 17-year-old Ilia Boss, a recent Tbilisi high school graduate. "Now you have a guarantee that you can get anywhere and study if you have knowledge."

In Georgia, pressure to attend university is high, and students collectively pay an estimated $10 million a year in bribes, the equivalent of the Ministry of Education's annual budget. "They are interested in diplomas, not knowledge," says another student, 16-year-old Mikheil Benidze.

As a result, undereducated graduates with little more than paper degrees descend on the job market each year, with little hope of finding work. According to a recent Soros poll, only 3 percent of graduates of Tbilisi State University, Georgia's top public university, land jobs.

Now, some worry, an additional 15,000 16- and 17-year olds who don't make the test cutoff will join them. To help, Georgia is trying to develop a system of vocational education. But Ilia says many of his fellow students will join the military instead.

For the moment, attention is being focused on Sunday's pilot exam. "Everything hangs on the successful administration of the test in May," says Mr. Blauvelt.

Looking ahead to July, security has already increased in preparation for the actual test. An armed guard flanks NAEC's doors around the clock, and another guard will travel with the test when it returns from being printed abroad.

But Mr. Bakker is sure the kinks will eventually be worked out.

"People are at first afraid of being assessed on alien standards," he says. "But once they have some experience they usually embrace the test as more safe and reliable than the alternative."

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