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The current version of the SAT college entrance exam is ending in January. Hundreds of thousands of students nationwide will sit, squirm or stress through the nearly four-hour reading, writing and math test. A revamped version debuts in March.
Sixteen-year-old Alex Cohen, a junior at the Miami Country Day School in Florida, thinks he's solid on math. But he's been studying vocabulary words to get ready for the exam.
"I don't want to study for the new one. So hopefully I'll do well on this one," he said.
Alex said his college adviser was worried about students being "guinea pigs" for the SAT that rolls out March 5. The adviser told him to focus on the Jan. 23 exam. "There's a lot of vocabulary on this test. So I've been trying to memorize as many words as I can per day," Alex said. He wants to study business and finance in college.
The College Board is the nonprofit organization that owns the SAT. The College Board says more than 351,000 students registered to take the test. That's a nearly 10 percent increase over the number of students registered for last January's exam.
Looking ahead to March, the College Board says the revamped exam is more representative of what students study in high school and the skills they need to succeed in college and afterward.
"Everything that's in the redesigned SAT is knowledge and skills that kids are learning in classrooms every single day. It's not left field," Cyndie Schmeiser, the board's chief of assessment, said. "No surprises. No mystery."
The test last was revised in 2005.
The new makeover focuses more on real-world learning and analysis by students. There is also no longer a penalty for guessing on the redesigned exam. The essay will be optional. Students who decide not to write an essay will see about 50 minutes shaved off the length of the test.
Phil Pine, who runs the test preparation company, Capital Educators in the Washington metropolitan area, says he's told his students not to rush to take the test in January. That is because they won't be able to take the same test again if they don't score well.
But with so much material available on the current test, it's more familiar, so Pine said some students have told him, "this feels safer to me."
His advice for juniors has been to wait for the new SAT or take its competitor, the ACT, unless there's a compelling reason to take the test now - such as students who need early scores for coaches, specific academic programs or for those who feel ready.
College counselor Phillip Trout in Minnesota says very few of his students at Minnetonka High School are opting for the Jan. 23 SAT and he's advising them not to take the first administration of the new SAT.
"We're telling them to take the ACT," says Trout. "Let somebody else in America be the guinea pig."
Students at Minnetonka High School had already leaned heavily in preference toward the ACT anyway. About 90 percent of seniors had taken the ACT last year. Down the road, though, Trout says more of his students may embrace the SAT, with its shift to test subject mastery and its similarity to ACT.
Testing tutor Ned Johnson says he's seeing students sidestepping this SAT switchover altogether by just taking the ACT.
"The challenge with the change in the test is that it basically just stresses people out," says Johnson, president of PrepMatters in Bethesda, Maryland. "The idea that students might have to prepare for the current SAT and then again for the new redesigned SAT is not particularly appealing."
The new SAT will continue to test reading, writing and math, with an emphasis on analysis. Some of the obscure vocabulary words that left kids memorizing flash cards for endless hours will vanish. Instead, more widely known words used in classroom learning will appear on the test and students will have to demonstrate their ability to determine meaning in different contexts.
There are some other significant changes to the test such as in math, students will see more algebra and problem solving. The use of calculators will be limited. The essay portion will be optional and the top score will be 1,600 with a separate score for the essay.