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Grading new SAT

By Sasha Mushegian

Knight Ridder Newspapers

What is the new SAT test actually like? Although my dominant feeling was "really, really long and dispiriting," I couldn't help also thinking, "manageable."

Let me explain.

Recently, a fellow student and I traveled to the office of the Princeton Review to experience a sneak preview of the "New SAT," something so mysterious that it has become a sort of legend among members of the class of 2006, the first group to take the new test for college admissions.

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"The ETS (Educational Testing Service, which writes all of the country's major standardized tests) decided to change the SAT mostly because it was becoming so discredited as an indicator of student ability," said Stephanie Reeves, a teacher and Princeton Review employee. "The California universities weren't going to use SAT scores anymore if important changes weren't made to the test."

Those changes have been made. The new SAT is an excruciating 3 hours 10 minutes long (not including breaks and instructions), compared to 2 hours 30 minutes for the old one, mostly due to the expansion of the writing section.

The new section is essentially a condensed SAT II writing test and will be scored similarly to the way that test is. The official other changes are the elimination of analogies and quantitative comparison.

Along with the writing section come sections on grammar and usage, identifying errors in sentences and word choice.

Besides these obvious additions and omissions, there have been changes in the content of the test itself. "The old SAT was strange in the sense that it covered sixth- through ninth-grade math skills and 11th through 12th grade verbal skills," Reeves said. "The new test more logically tests what you've learned in school. It's more like the ACT now. It's also meant to exhaust you. If it was a breeze, everyone would do well and colleges wouldn't be able to tell the difference between the students taking it."

The essay section of the SAT is probably the biggest change from the old test. Some will welcome it, some will not. You get 25 minutes and two sheets of paper with some lines on them, on which you write a response to a thought-provoking question.

In our case, the prompt was: "A popular song states, `You don't know what you've got till it's gone.' What is your opinion of the belief that we appreciate things not while we have them, but when we've lost them? Support your position with examples from the arts, literature, current events and personal experience."

I miscalculated how much time I had and wrote too much about "Gone With the Wind," which left me with not enough time to write as much as I had wanted about the near-deaths of two of my friends. It's a good idea to practice writing under pressure.

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What will scorers be looking for? "Organization, mostly, the ability to clearly express your thoughts. Don't make any glaring factual errors, and use decent vocabulary," Reeves says. "And keep in mind that each of your two graders will spend about 50-60 seconds reading your essay before giving you a score."

The new math section draws more heavily from Algebra II and Pre-Calculus. As on the old test, a few geometric formulas are given at the beginning of the section. An unexpected number of questions dealt with absolute value and systems of equations. Word problems were slightly more complex than before.

My test scores on the sections besides writing were, on average, around 100 points lower than I scored on the regular SAT. However, I left with confidence in my ability to improve my score.

The conclusions I drew from taking this test were not especially revolutionary. The best way to do well on the verbal sections is to read a lot, as this not only improves your reading speed but also gives you a natural instinct for identifying correct and incorrect grammar, and makes you familiar with a wide variety of words. On the math section, speed and a solid understanding of math concepts is essential, so pay attention in math class and do your math homework. And practice.

Sasha Mushegian is a student at Blue Valley North High School in Overland Park, Kan.

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