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September 12, 2002

Revised SAT will remain just one part of admissions puzzle at Pitt

In June, the College Board unveiled plans for a retooled SAT that the board says will better reflect what students learn in high school. Beginning in spring 2005, the test will include a writing section, new reading questions and more advanced mathematics.

"The College Board says the changes will relate more closely to high school curriculums and more accurately predict a student's performance in college," said Betsy A. Porter, director of Pitt's Office of Admissions and Financial Aid. "Some people, myself included, say: 'Well, that remains to be seen.'"

Like some other university admissions officials — as well as many high school guidance counselors and students themselves — Porter has mixed feelings about the SAT and standardized tests in general.

"There probably is no definite answer as to whether standardized tests are enormously or somewhat helpful, or not helpful at all," she said. "On the one hand, it's helpful to have something in addition to individual high school grades and class rankings, something that reflects a national norm. But I also think that standardized tests can be very harmful to students' psyches and can be especially damaging to the very students who need their academic self-confidence built up.

"From that perspective, I think that tinkering with the SAT in response to the criticisms that people have been offering is a good move."

Opponents of the test say it is prejudiced in favor of students whose families can afford SAT coaching and prep courses, and against low-income and minority students, who tend to do poorly on standardized tests. Overemphasis on SAT scores has encouraged high schools to design their curricula around the test, critics say, a perversion of the SAT's original purpose of measuring what potential college students have learned.

Pressure to change the exam had been growing since last year, when the president of the University of California system proposed that the system develop its own test (to include a writing section), eliminating the SAT as an admissions requirement. Other university officials, professional organizations and op-ed writers joined the anti-SAT chorus.

University of California officials have hailed the announced changes in the SAT, and have ceased talking about creating their own alternative exam.

The new SAT will have three sections instead of two, each scored on a 200-800 scale:

* A "critical reading" section, currently called the verbal section. Word analogies (decried as particularly lending themselves to coaching) will be replaced by paragraph-length reading comprehension questions aimed at testing students' analytical thinking.

* A math section that will include concepts taught through third-year high school algebra. Currently, the math section stops with concepts taught through second-year geometry.

* A new writing section, which will include a 30-minute handwritten essay that the College Board will make available to admissions offices via the Internet.

A perfect score will no longer be 1600, but 2400. The test's length will increase by 30 minutes to three-and-a-half hours, and the current $26 cost is expected to jump by $10-$12.

At Pitt, SAT scores have always been just one part of the admissions puzzle, Porter emphasized.

"We don't have a cut-off SAT score for admission to Pitt," she said. "Standardized test scores are not first, or last, on our list of admissions criteria."

"First and foremost" among those criteria is a student's high school record, which includes courses taken, grades received, grade point average and, if available, class rank, said Porter. She and her staff also consider standardized test scores, optional essays and letters of recommendation, leadership activities and work experience.

Pitt used to require applicants to submit a personal essay — until high school guidance counselors pointed out that there was no way to tell how much help a student received in writing such an essay (or if the student contributed at all).

"On the optional essays that our applicants submit, we're looking less for writing quality than we are for information about the student, things that wouldn't show up on a transcript or test scores — for example, health problems that might explain absenteeism," Porter said.

Of the revised SAT's new writing component, she predicted: "Now that we will be getting essays that students wrote under pure laboratory conditions, so to speak, what we'll see are huge disparities between students from different schools. We will then have to determine whether [those disparities] are curriculum-based or whether it's because some kids really are better writers than others."

Porter has a personal as well as professional interest in the new SAT: Her son, Michael, will be a high school junior during the 2004-2005 academic year. And, like the vast majority of college-bound students, he plans to take the SAT for the first time in the spring of his junior year — when the new SAT will go into effect.

Pitt has not set a policy yet for changing over to the new SAT, Porter said. But she offered the following advice for students who plan to apply to Pitt: "If you're going to be a high school junior in spring 2005 — meaning you would be applying here the following year, for admission to Pitt during the 2006-2007 academic year — then you should take the new SAT."

Recently, officials at ACT, Inc. announced that they will add an optional writing section to the American College Test entrance exam by the 2004-2005 academic year.

The ACT is the SAT's main rival. Pitt requires applicants to submit either SAT or ACT scores, although most students here take the SAT.

Details about the ACT's new writing section have not been determined yet, ACT officials said.

— Bruce Steele n

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 2

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