New SAT: 'No more tricks'

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SAT-prep service providers say the changes should make it easier to help students study for the new tests.

Last year Yaseena Ali, now a 16-year-old junior at Upper Merion High School, invested precious weekend hours in a time-honored ritual for the college-bound youth of America: studying flash cards of abstruse vocabulary words - such as abstruse.

The hard work helped her ace the PSAT, widely considered a practice round of the college-entrance exam. But now as Ali prepares for her all-important SAT in early March, those flash cards are in storage.

In the first overhaul of the nation's best-known college entrance exam in more than a decade, the revamped SAT - Scholastic Aptitude Test - that debuts March 5 will make dramatic changes in how the test is given and scored.

The essay becomes optional. Math questions will focus more narrowly on algebra and problem-solving. And reading questions will now stress understanding everyday words in their proper context.

"This is the most open and transparent SAT that has ever been out there," said David Adams, vice president of the test-administering Middle States Region College Board. "We're asking kids to focus on a few things that research and evidence shows matter most for college and career success. There are no more tricks."

The new SAT is a milestone in a long-running debate over how universities should pick the best applicants, in a time when a college diploma is considered more essential for success than ever. But for students, the transition has stirred new anxieties: whether to sign up for the optional essay, which adds 50 minutes to the three-hour exam, and how to best study for the new test.

"I don't think anybody really knows what colleges are going to be looking at. We're stuck between the old and new," said Pottsgrove High School junior Michael Neeson, who turns 17 on Sunday.

He plans to take the new SAT in March, but sat through the old one in December - "just in case they still want to look at that."

The swan song for the old version was supposed to have been Jan. 23, but because of the blizzard some of the 351,000 students nationally scheduled for that day will take it next month.

According to the College Board, about 53 million students have taken the SATs since 1972. But while the test remains the predominant college entrance exam here in the East, the rival ACT (formerly called the American College Test) is more popular in other parts of the country and passed the SAT in nationwide test-takers in 2012 - although some 180 colleges now no longer require either for admission. Most experts say the changes will make the SAT much more similar to the ACT.

Last year, 1.7 million students took the SAT, and 1.92 took the ACT. Both cost about $50.

The new test also will bring major changes in how the SATs are scored. With the essay now optional and evaluated separately, the maximum possible score reverts back to 1600 from 2400. And students will no longer be penalized for guessing on questions. To help students prepare for the new format, the College Board has been offering new practice tools at the website satpractice.org.

Matt Joseph, who founded the MJ Prep test-preparation service 18 years ago and has offices in Bryn Mawr and Chestnut Hill, said he sees a lot of overlap between the new SAT and the ACT. It should be easier to work with students to raise their reading scores, he added, because in the past many resisted the flash-card preparation that was necessary for the now-abandoned vocabulary sections.

But Joseph also expressed concern that with the test aligned closely with everyday classroom curricula, students who attend better-funded, elite schools will have a leg up on others, especially in the revamped math section.

"On the old test, there was a reasoning component - it wasn't high-level math or high-level anything," he said. "If you're able to reason on your own, you can score well."

Adams says the changes in the reading and math segments are simply geared more toward the day-to-day skills that students will need to thrive not just in college but their eventual workplace.

"Now there are more words like synthesis that students not only use in high school but in college and are going to use over and over in careers," Adams said. "In math, what really matters most for college success is algebra."

Experts also say the new SAT will align more closely with the Common Core curriculum, which stresses similar basic skills. One of the leading advocates for that classroom change, David Coleman, is now president and CEO of the College Board.

"College Board workshops say they're making this a fairer test of all the socioeconomic backgrounds," said Erik Enters, a college counselor at Upper Merion High School, who believes the new test is more "coachable."

For many students, the toughest decision about the new SATs will be whether to take the now-optional essay, which Joseph says will be more narrowly focused than the vague prompts on the old test.

Some colleges, including the University of Pennsylvania, have already said they will not require the essay. Enters said he was advising students to take it anyway in order to be ready for any possible admissions requirements.

But Amalia Robinson, 16, a junior from Ridley High School who took the old SAT in October and scored 1990 out of 2400, said she would skip the essay in March to focus harder on algebra. "A lot of people say writing isn't important to their major, so they're glad they don't have to take the [essay]," she said.

Despite the changes, the question of how colleges and universities should best judge applicants is far from settled. Officials at Harvard and Yale Universities have said recently that they were probing ways to gauge the community involvement and "kindness" of prospective students in addition to their grades and test scores.

That could mean the college applicants of tomorrow won't need to define altruism or empathy from a flash card - or even abtruse, which means complicated or hard to understand - but rather will learn how to be altruistic and empathetic.

kboccella@phillynews.com

610-313-8232 @Kathy_Boccella