Personal Trainer for SAT well-designed, easy to use

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February 14, 1994|By MICHAEL J. HIMOWITZ

On March 19, some 200,000 high school students will sit down to a new version of an old rite of passage known as the SAT.

Long regarded as the do-or-die college admissions exam, the Scholastic Assessment Test of verbal and mathematical reasoning has undergone its first major rewrite since 1974. The College Board and the Educational Testing Service, which oversee the SAT program, developed the new test after years of research -- and loud complaints from critics who said the old version did a rotten job of predicting college performance and discriminated against minorities and women.

It will be years before we know whether the new SAT is any better than the old one. College-bound students still have to take the test, and that means there will still be a lively market for books, computer programs and cram courses designed to improve their scores. Because the new SAT eliminates many old questions and adds new ones, students should make sure their study materials reflect the changes in the exam.

For students with personal computers and $59.95 to spend, a good start is Your Personal SAT Trainer Version 2.0, from Davidson & Associates. Available in Windows and Macintosh versions, Personal Trainer is an attractive, thorough and well-organized program of sample tests, workouts, analyses and strategy sessions designed for the new SAT.

When you run the program, you'll find a registration form that asks whether you're a new student, a continuing student, or a visitor. When you first register as a new student, the program sets up a data file that records your progress and updates the file every time you subsequently log on as a continuing student. The program can handle a virtually unlimited number of students, which makes it ideal for classroom as well as individual use.

Along with a brief but clear instruction manual, you'll find two full-length, 2 1/2 -hour printed sample SATs. One is a pretest to identify your strengths and weaknesses at the outset; the other is a post-test that will show how well you've done after you've finished your practice and workouts.

You can take either test in its written form and then transfer your answers to a form on the screen when you're through. Or you can tell the program to display the test on the screen and do the whole thing on-line. The choice is yours.

Since you'll be taking the real test with pencil and paper (the College Board says it won't have a computerized version until the turn of the century), it's probably a good idea to use the sample test booklet for at least one of the exams.

Once you've finished the pretest, the program will produce a detailed score report for the verbal and math sections that shows your answer and the correct answer for each question. It also breaks your scores down by section -- analogies, sentence completion (vocabulary) and critical reading in the verbal section, and arithmetic, algebra and geometry in the math section.

SAT score estimated

The report shows how well you did on easy, medium and hard questions, produces an estimate of your true SAT score (on a scale of 200 to 800 for each section), and will graph your performance against the average SAT scores for any of more than 300 different colleges.

Because the program instantly identifies your strengths and weaknesses (a major advantage over printed study guides), you can quickly develop a personalized strategy for workouts focusing on various types of questions. During those workouts, the program will pop a question onto the screen. If you get the answer wrong, Personal Trainer will display the right answer, with a clear explanation of how to arrive at it.

Personal Trainer also provides detailed strategies for studying (such as looking at word definitions in broad groups) and for taking the test itself, such as making sure to answer all the easy questions first and guessing intelligently. It also includes excellent tips on using calculators, which will be allowed in March for the first time. The program comes with a dictionary of 500 words that frequently appear on the SAT.

While Personal Trainer is well-designed, informative, easy to use and (unusual for a new Windows application) virtually bug-free, the big question is how much any kind of test preparation will actually improve your SAT scores. The College Board has been battling the makers of study guides and cram school operators over this question for years.

The official College Board line is that the best preparation for the SAT is a strong college preparatory high school program, including algebra and geometry courses by the end of the 10th grade. No one disputes this. On the other hand, a knowledge of the exam, test-taking strategies and the tricks the SAT authors use in devising their questions is undoubtedly helpful.

Vague claim

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