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Published: Tuesday, 3/15/2005

The new SAT

STUDENTS who took the Scholastic Aptitude Test sat longer, wrote more, and answered more questions than ever before. It was the debut of the new SAT, now worth up to 2,400 points, complete with an essay question, grammar sections, shorter reading passages, and more advanced math.

For the SAT, it was a major change: a definite philosophical step away from its roots in intelligence testing (embodied in the now-discarded analogy and quantitative comparison questions) and toward testing what students have actually learned in school. The focus on achievement over aptitude brings an opportunity to drive high school curriculums. And writing, reading, grammar, and math beyond geometry are all causes worthy of advancing.

Most of the angst and criticism over the new SAT has been directed toward the essay. In 25 minutes, students had to write up to a two-page essay taking a position on the prompt provided. There are inherent problems in assigning a numerical score to a piece of writing. But there's a larger issue, and that is the essay may be testing two skills that are growing increasingly obsolete: handwriting and spelling.

How colleges will deal with the essay, and the rest of the 800-point writing score derived from grammar questions, is an open question. Some colleges may discard the writing section altogether, choosing to stick with the traditional 1,600-point scale of the verbal and math sections. Others may avail themselves of the opportunity to examine the students' actual essays, to compare writing done in 25 minutes to edited essays included in college applications.

In today's world of grade inflation and hyper-competitive colleges, the importance of the SAT in college admissions can't be understated. The SAT has been changed for the better, but getting those changes implemented, graded, and promoted will be a worthy challenge.

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