The SAT may be new, but the anxiety is the same old thing

March 16, 1994|By ALICE STEINBACH

In just a few days, more than 200,000 high-school students will learn a lesson they don't teach in school.

Which is: Reality bites.

Or put another way: It's time once again for the dreaded Scholastic Aptitude Test to ambush the hopes of college-bound students across the land.

With No. 2 pencils at the ready and calculators in hand, they will march into the fearsome Valley of SAT-Land, hoping to reach successfully the high ground beyond, the place called: College.

Taking the SAT is, traditionally, an ordeal filled with fear and loathing. Waiting to get back the results -- a perfect SAT score is 1600 -- is, traditionally, even more anxiety-provoking.

Futures will be boosted or broken depending on the number-crunching. Harvard hopefuls may find themselves applying to the University of Podunk. Of course, in a few rare cases, University of Podunk applicants may get SAT scores that prompt them to apply to Harvard.

Face it: The SAT scores count. A lot. Sure, the college admissions offices will tell you they're just part of the total package. And maybe, in a few extraordinary cases, they are. But the majority of college-bound students know this: When it comes to getting into college, you live by the SAT and you die by the SAT.

In fact, there are some people -- not you and me, of course, but other less mature types -- who never get out from under their SAT scores.

Those who scored above, say, 1300 can often find a way -- 20 years later -- of working such figures into a conversation.

And those of us who scored, shall we say, in three digits rather than four, know the wisdom of keeping these albatross-like numbers to ourselves.

Never mind that if you have a few hundred bucks to drop, you can buy the services of someone who will coach you in how to take the SAT. Private tutoring to boost SAT scores is, in fact, big business. And no wonder. One SAT coaching firm claims that its students were able to increase scores by an average of 115 points.

And with the introduction this year of a new version of the SAT -- the first in 20 years -- enrollment in coaching courses has jumped as much as 50 percent.

That's because students -- and their parents who, after all, fork up the money -- are responding with more anxiety than ever to the idea of a new SAT replacing the old SAT.

So what exactly are the changes?

First, the name change. It is no longer Scholastic Aptitude Test. It is now Scholastic Assessment Test.

So far, so good. No need for extra coaching there.

Next: The new SAT will place less emphasis on memorizing and more on comprehension. (Note to reader: Comprehension is just a fancy word for understanding.)

Also, the new test will stress critical reading over vocabulary skills; it will require more writing on the part of students.

And, in what seems the biggest change of all, the new SAT will have many fewer multiple-choice answers. In 10 of the 60 math questions, students will actually have to figure out the answers instead of relying on choosing from a list.

This last bit can't be good news for the coaching companies, since teaching the art of multiple-choice guessing will lose some of its cache.

But so much for the English and math sections of this column. Let's move on to the history section.

Question: What is the history of the college entrance tests? Where do they come from? And who thought up this torture?

A brief answer: Before 1900, every college had its own standards for admission. Which meant a different entrance exam had to be taken by students for each college. This chaotic approach led to the formation of the College Entrance Examination Board in 1900.

The following year the board's first universal test, in essay form, was given in areas such as history, English, Greek and Latin.

In 1926, essay exams -- following the example of the newly popular IQ tests -- gave way to the multiple-choice approach.

That led to the SAT.

And that led to the SAT coaching industry.

Final question. What is the difference between the following two concepts:

(a) Life as a test of one's ability to learn, think and respond.

(b) Life as a test score.

Please answer in essay form.

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