The independent news organization of Duke University

New SAT could be blessing, curse

Armed with number two pencils, College Board officials will vote today on proposed changes to the SAT I, a move meant in part to assuage threats by the University of California system to abandon the nationwide college entrance exam.

The proposed changes include eliminating the analogy section in exchange for a critical reading component, adding a 20-minute writing portion and adjusting the math section to include material covered in second-year high school algebra.

Director of Undergraduate Admissions Christoph Guttentag said he mostly welcomed the changes, but stopped short of supporting the elimination of the analogy section. Critics say that part of the examination does not test skills taught in high school, just those taught by SAT-preparatory classes.

"I understand why analogies would be dropped, but I find that a little bit unfortunate, because simply dropping them won't make the test a more valid predictor," Guttentag said.

Guttentag added that the possibility of reading students' writing samples would be one of the new test's highlights. College Board is considering sending the samples to universities along with scores.

"It would be more useful for us to be able to see the writing sample then to receive the writing score," he said.

The new system could make the current SAT II Writing test unnecessary. Guttentag said his office would carefully consider whether to receive the essays, but said reading work that is not a "polished piece of prose," unlike most application essays, would be a great benefit.

"It's not going to completely level the playing field," Guttentag warned. "Teachers will teach how to write 20-minute essays."

Test prep is one of the main reasons the University of California system called for a re-examination of the test last year and threatened to abandon it for admission. UC officials say preparatory classes like those offered by Kaplan, the Princeton Review and other companies--as well as by some high schools--teach test-taking skills and tricks for students who can afford the classes.

FairTest, a national organization that says it promotes fair and open testing and has called for the elimination of all testing for college admissions, characterized the proposed changes to the SAT as a marketing ploy, meant to save the more than 175,000 California customers who could be lost if UC abandons the test.

The group said the new test would also still be prone to the disadvantages of test prep.

"Every known test has proven extremely susceptible to coaching," FairTest wrote in a recent letter to the College Board. "Students from affluent families can Obuy' a leg up that is unavailable to children from less wealthy homes. The result... tilts the playing field against low-income and minority applicants."

FairTest also said the writing section could increase the exam's bias against those students whose first language is not standard English, and would not accurately assess a student's ability to research and write the types of papers required in college.

Guttentag said his greatest fear of the proposed changes is the amount of time needed to complete the test. Currently about four hours long, the test could be extended by almost 30 minutes.

"Some students may find themselves not being able to do as well as they would have wanted to at the end of the test. There could be a fatigue factor," he said.

Duke requires either the SAT I and three SAT II tests, including writing, or the ACT test. About two million high school juniors and seniors take the SAT each year.

The changes, if approved, would not go into effect until 2004. Guttentag said that would mean that the Class of 2010 would be the first Duke freshmen to be affected.