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Sharpen your pencils, please

When the new SAT makes its debut on Saturday, high school juniors across the nation will have to write a first-ever, mandatory essay. The change is being welcomed by some, and questioned by others.
Walter Busch, a high school junior, says he's prepared for the new essay on the SAT and that adding a writing test makes sense because "it's definitely a skill students will need in the business world."
Walter Busch, a high school junior, says he's prepared for the new essay on the SAT and that adding a writing test makes sense because "it's definitely a skill students will need in the business world."Robert Hood /
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Walter Busch is among the 300,000 high school juniors across the nation planning to sit down on Saturday to take the new SAT, which for the first time includes an essay. He says he's not sweating bullets because his school has drilled persuasive writing until it hurts his head and his hands.

But not all students are as confident. And not all universities are embracing the changes in the nation's leading college preparatory test, which can play a pivotal role in where a high school graduate goes to college.

The biggest change in the test is the essay. With its addition, the SAT has dropped analogies, in which students had to answer multiple-choice problems like: Bark is to dog as moo is to ...

At three hours and 45 minutes, the new test is 45 minutes longer than the old one, and a perfect score becomes 2400 instead of 1600. That's 800 points each for math, reading and writing.

Essay sought to improve weak writing skills
The mandatory essay was announced in 2002 to give schools plenty of time to prepare students, said Caren Scoropanos, a spokesperson for the College Board, which owns the test and is a nonprofit association of 4,500 schools, colleges and other educational groups.

Colleges and businesses had sought the change, she says, in hopes that "writing will become more of a priority across the United States."

Indeed, in 2001 the University of California threatened to drop the SAT unless a writing section was added, saying that fewer freshmen were prepared for the more intense writing requirements of college.

Businesses also want employees with polished writing skills because of society's greater reliance on computers for communication, according to a panel of educators and business leaders commissioned by the College Board.

Busch, a student at the public International Community School in Kirkland, a Seattle suburb, says his school took heed. "My school spends a lot of time on writing in general, so I am much more confident writing an essay than having to do analogies," the junior says.

Many, but not all, colleges have endorsed the new test. Supporters look forward to being able to read and compare SAT essays to college application essays, which many students receive help writing, and to factor in the SAT essay if a student's test scores conflict with English grades.

Opponents see barrier for poor
Among the dissenters is Georgetown University.

"For the next year Georgetown will not be looking at the written component of the SAT test as part of our decision-making process," said spokeswoman Julie Green Bataille.

Instead, she said, the university will consider math and reading scores, plus a student's overall academic record, extracurricular and community activities, and leadership qualities.

Charles Deacon,Georgetown's admissions director, recently elaborated on the policy, telling The Hoya, Georgetown's student newspaper, that “behind this rationale is our concern that the addition of a writing section adds both time and money, a barrier to low-income students, who will do better on an achievement-oriented basis.”

Essay basics, scoring
While the essay has gotten the most attention, it counts for just a third of the writing section; multiple-choice questions count for the other two-thirds.

Here's how the essay works: Students are given a passage of writing and get 25 minutes to develop a stand on an issue and support it with reasoning and examples.

Two readers, usually high school English teachers, will grade each essay separately, assigning a score from 1 to 6. If their scores differ by more than one point, a "scoring leader" will resolve the difference.

Scorers read the essays as first drafts, not polished final products, so spelling errors will not affect a score "unless they are so pervasive that they get in the way of the reader understanding the essay," the College Board says. "Even with some errors in punctuation and grammar, a student can get a top score on the essay."

Poor handwriting won't be scored, it adds, "but essay readers must be able to decipher" penmanship.

The final judges of the new SAT will be the colleges themselves. They'll be monitoring for "predictive validity" — basically, comparing freshmen grades to their SAT scores to see if they match well.

The University of California, for one, will study results of the new exam for three years to make sure it is really an improvement.

Other changes
While the essay is the most controversial SAT change, there are also significant changes in the math section. Gone are quantitative comparisons, in which students compare formulas or quantities in two columns and decide which, if either, is greater.

Students now are tested in Algebra II in addition to Algebra I "to reflect current classroom practices and admissions standards," the board says in a Questions & Answers statement on the changes. "Seventy percent of high school students finish Algebra II (or its equivalent) by the end of their junior year."

As for analogies, the board said it dropped those because "they are less connected to the current high school curriculum. Additionally, some educators have expressed concern that the analogy format encouraged rote memorization of vocabulary words." The new SAT will assess analogical reasoning in the reading portions of the tests.

So is it harder?
In its explainer on the new SAT, the College Board says the exam "will be different, not harder." The board says students should view it as an opportunity "to demonstrate how well they have learned to express and organize their thoughts."

Busch, the confident junior, agrees there is a difference, and one he'll benefit from. "I definitely think that kids who don't have a broad and detailed writing experience will have more trouble on the new SAT," he says.

But Busch, who sees a future for himself in engineering, architecture or business, also supports the changes. "It's good that the SAT is basically requiring writing to be covered more thoroughly in schools," he says, "because it's definitely a skill students will need in the business world."

As for apprehensive students, Scoropanos suggests they try to hone their writing skills by visiting the College Board's Web site for daily practice tips.

"The long-term answer," she says, "is to take demanding courses in high school. Write and read as often as possible."