Students gear up for revised SAT test

Metro Atlanta high school students and parents are feeling anxious about the new version of the SAT college-entrance exam and beefing up test-preparation efforts.

For the first time in nearly a decade, the SAT is changing its format, which will hew closer to the reading and math curriculum used in students’ classrooms. The change, which debuts March 5, is an effort to focus on the skills students need most for college readiness.

“There is some anxiety that comes along with that (SAT) because of the pressure of doing well, testing well,” said Carla Daniel, whose daughter attends North Atlanta High School and is getting tutored to prepare for the new exam, which debuts March 5.

Students who do well on the SAT boost their chances of getting into top colleges and earning HOPE scholarships, part of which hinges on SAT scores.

For several months now, school counselors and administrators in Georgia and throughout the U.S. have tried to prepare students for the SAT changes, offering more opportunities for tutoring and practice taking the new test. Students who took the PSAT exam in October got a first glimpse of what the new SAT will be like. The PSAT exam administered by the College Board tests 10th- and 11th-graders in math, reading and writing and is a warm-up for the SAT.

The new SAT exam will call on students to think more analytically in reading, writing and math, to show how they can use and interpret evidence to solve problems, according to Georgia Department of Education officials.

Under the SAT changes, test takers won't have to recall a wide array of vocabulary words — so-called "SAT words." The penalty for guessing is also gone. Other changes include a focus on the areas of math that matter most at the college level and an optional essay, according to the College Board.

The test score scale is also changing, from 600-2400 to 400-1600, with the essay scored separately.

The test changes are meant to “focus exactly on the skills that students most need for success in college,” said Stacy Caldwell, vice president for college readiness assessment at College Board.

“When we looked at the data, we saw that far too many of our high school students … are graduating from high school not really ready to go to college and do credit-bearing courses.”

Georgia state education officials are encouraged by the SAT changes and believe the new format could mean scores going up for students. Currently, the state ranks in the bottom half in scores, compared to other states.

In Georgia, 72,898 or 76.9 percent of students from the class of 2015 took the SAT, according to the College Board. Georgia's overall combined mean score increased five points, to 1450. It still lags the national score, which was 1490 in 2015, and ranks 44th among U.S. states. The highest possible score is 2400.

State education officials think the new SAT will complement the new state test Georgia Milestones, which is more rigorous than the previous state test to be more in line with national standardized tests like the SAT and ACT college-entrance exams.

Since June, more than 800,000 users have logged onto the Khan Academy SAT practice site, completing more than 16 million practice problems. The College Board's new app called Daily Practice for the SAT can simulate test day and give students more opportunity for practice.

Some experts say there could be delays in getting test results from March, as the College Board works out any bugs in its technology and transitions to a new exam. The PSAT scores from fall of 2015 were delayed nearly a month.

Many Georgia students now take both the SAT and ACT — probably because of school counselors making students more aware that Georgia's public colleges accept either exam. So students are covering their bases, according to state education officials.

According to ACT, the 2015 participation rate was 58 percent in Georgia, compared to 53 percent in 2014. But 10 years ago, only about 25 percent took the ACT.

"The new SAT skews heavily in so many ways toward the ACT," said Jed Applerouth, who heads Applerouth tutoring company, which has locations in Atlanta and other cities. "Last year, there was a gap of 220,000 students (nationally) – there were more kids taking the ACT. And that's brand new. For years, the College Board, their product was the most popular around the country. But now the ACT is the number one test in the U.S. They've (College Board) been shifting away from aptitude (on the SAT) … toward achievement."

To ready students for the new SAT, metro Atlanta school systems like Fulton County are offering SAT tutoring opportunities. Total cost for prep classes and practice exams in Fulton is $220 for 8 to 9 weeks of instruction at the local school.

Fulton covers $95 of this amount for all students. Similar preparatory classes often cost close to $500. Fulton also offers to waive all participation costs for students eligible for free and reduced-price school lunches.

Applerouth said some students are struggling with the hour-long reading section of the new SAT, based on the results of the PSAT. Calculators are also prohibited for part of the new test, which means students are doing lots of long division and hand calculations when attempting more complex math problems, he added.

Overall, however, he thinks the new revamped SAT is an improvement over the old version.

“I actually think the new SAT is a better test,” he said. “It really gets at the kind of content kids are going to see in college.”