Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Preparing For The Scholastic Aptitude Test

My daughter has been studying for her upcoming SAT1 exam. She is taking it in the spring of her "junior year" as a homeschooler, as she is already making preparations for college admissions. So in honor of all the time she is putting into this effort, I thought I'd share some information and thoughts about the SAT's.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test, otherwise known as the SAT1, is a 3-hour-and-45-minute test that is supposed to measure the critical thinking, mathematical reasoning, and writing skills that students need to do college-level work.

According to the College Board website:

The test's three sections are divided into nine subsections, including a 25-minute essay, which are timed separately:

Tests Ability To
Critical Reading
(3 sections)
  • Understand and analyze what is read.
  • Recognize relationships between parts of a sentence.
  • Understand word meaning in context.
(3 sections)
Solve problems involving:
  • Algebra and functions
  • Geometry and measurement
  • Number and operations
  • Data analysis, statistics, and probability
(3 sections)
  • Use Standard Written English.
  • Identify sentence errors.
  • Write an essay and develop a point of view.
There are also SAT2 subject tests that are multiple choice format and about an hour long. The SAT2 is supposed to test ability in roughly 20 different areas of study.

Many colleges and universities use the SAT score results as an indicator along with class rank, high school GPA, extracurricular activities, personal essay, and teacher recommendations to determine a student's readiness to do college-level work. SAT scores may be compared with the scores of other college applicants, and sometimes the scores at college can be used as a basis for awarding merit-based financial aid. Each SAT section is scored on a scale of 200-800. The average score on the SAT is about 500 on the critical reading portion, 500 on the mathematics portion, and 500 on the writing portion. Students typically take the SAT in their junior or senior year of high school. At least half of all students take the SAT twice—in the spring of junior year and in the fall of senior year. It is reported that most students improve their scores when taking the test the second time around. All scores are reported to colleges, but colleges generally look only at the highest scores. The test is administered several times a year at various locations.

Around the early 1900's the science of intelligence testing was in its infancy with the development of IQ tests by Alfred Binet. In the 1920's, Carl Brigham was in charge of a committee to develop a test to be used by schools to determine intelligence and aptitude for higher education. In 1926 College Board administered the SAT to high school students for the first time. Later in the 1930's James Bryant Conant, president of Harvard University, and Henry Chauncey, head of the then brand-new Educational Testing Service, were given the task of using the SAT to determine eligibility for students to be selected for Harvard scholarships. By the end of the 1930's Ivy League schools were requiring applicants to take the SAT. In 1948 the Educational Testing Service was created, with Henry Chauncey as president and Bryant Conant as Chairman of the Board. Universities were encouraged to use it as a requirement for admission. In 1952, the verbal portion of the test, as we see it today, was created to include reading comprehension, antonyms, analogies and sentence completion questions. In 1959 a rival testing organization was formed, which was the American College Testing Service.

There is a really good book about the SAT and why it was developed called "The Big Test: The Secret History of the American Meritocracy" by Nicholas LeMann. In "The Big Test", you will see the ideas, people and politics behind the Scholastic Assessment Test, which was begun over 50 years ago as a utopian experiment. The goal of this kind of testing was to create a new democratic elite that would lead postwar America to progress, strength and prosperity. John Taylor Gatto also wrote about that in his book "The Underground History of American Education". PBS/Frontline also did a program about "The Secrets of the SAT"

It is all very interesting to see the origins of this kind of testing, the racial and social implications that came with it and how it's widespread acceptance as an educational benchmark was achieved. Today there is still much controversy about the relevance of the test and whether or not it really is a true indicator of college success. I believe that the controversy is what prompted College Board to revamp the test in 2003, but I don't believe that the changes they instituted improved the testing at all. In fact I believe, along with many others, that the changes were further indications of the test being somewhat "dumbed down" and it is more of a movement towards a national curriculum.

Some colleges are abandoning SAT score use, or at least relying on the scores much less than before. Some schools are developing other methods to determine applicants' suitability for admission. Many college admissions officers will tell you that they do not rely heavily on SAT scores and that they "look at the total picture". You have reason to be skeptical about that, and it is not really clear how each college evaluates a candidate. There are so many factors that admissions people deal with, from their own imposed standards and quotas to their availability of freshman housing, as well as their applicant pool. It is clear to see that most admissions offices struggle with wading through applications and trying to make admission decisions. Sometimes there doesn't always seem to be a rhyme or reason as to who gets accepted and who gets rejected.

The SAT has been changed several times in it's history and in 2002 the SAT was overhauled again and those changes happened for the SAT 2005 for the graduating class of 2006. The changes made were:

The "verbal section" became known as "critical reading". That section now no longer includes analogies, and shorter reading passages were added to the old version's longer ones. A new section called the "writing section" was added and now contains multiple-choice grammar questions along with a written essay. The previous "math section" was expanded to cover three years of high school math. Previously it covered concepts from Geometry and Algebra I, and the current "math section" now contains concepts from Algebra II.

One thing is for certain, College Board is making a fortune on testing. They charge you for taking the test and they charge you for sending out the results (the first couple that they send out are "free"). Colleges may require that you take more than one test. This can be an expensive proposition and you may have to restrict your number of college applications to keep within a reasonable budget. With one of my kids, he applied to 5 schools and took the SAT 1, three SAT 2's and 2 Advanced Placement exams and it cost him close to $600. If you have to retake any of the exams it is also an added expense.

Other people who are obviously making a profit on standardized testing are the SAT review services that claim to help you raise your scores. I am sure you have gotten lots of mail from them if your child is of high school age. You should be very careful about these review programs. They are expensive and most don't do more than show you how to play the testing game. They share with you tips and techniques to guessing multiple choice answers and deciding which questions to answer. There really is no content taught. You most likely will do better with getting test preparation materials from the library or local book store and just get yourself acquainted with the test format and the material which will be covered. If you find, by taking a few practice tests, that you are weak in some areas then it may be time to take out a few textbooks and review the material (i.e. angles in a triangle or vocabulary). There are many good SAT vocabulary and mathematics review books, CD's and videos available, and there are also some helpful websites on the Internet. Take the time to review content! Leave yourself a few months prior to the tests to do this - and do not procrastinate.

On the average nationally homeschoolers have done very well on the SAT's and have done 5-10% better nationwide on their scores as compared to their non-homeschooling counterparts. The question remains, what does all that mean if the tests themselves really do not measure adequately what a person knows or can achieve? Some homeschoolers opt not to do the standardized tests and apply to colleges that do not require them. Others may work something out with their prospective colleges and see if there are other ways for the school to measure their future success in a desired college program. Talk to the admissions counselors and see if admission can be done through and interview or portfolio presentation. What they really want to know is what you've been up to for the 4 years of your "highschool" experience.

Another strategy might be to audit some courses or just take one or two as a part-time non-matriculated student. If college admissions counselors see that you have already done some college work and have been successful, they may not need standardized test scores to make a determination for college acceptance. Some colleges can't be bothered by case by case review and it then just becomes the numbers game. If you really desire to go to a specific school sometimes you just have to play the testing game and take the required tests. Whatever your route, just be sure you plan for it.

This is definitely worth reading!
Time Magazine's 2003 article about the new SAT - Inside the New SAT
or here as well