WASHINGTON - The current version of the SAT college entrance exam has its final run this weekend, when hundreds of thousands of students nationwide will sit, squirm or stress through the nearly four-hour reading, writing and math test. A new 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 studiously cramming on 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 new SAT that rolls out March 5 and told him to focus on Saturday's 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," said Alex, who wants to study business and finance in college.
The College Board, the nonprofit organization that owns the SAT, says more than 351,000 students registered to take the Jan. 23 test. That's a nearly 10 percent increase over the number of students registered for last January's exam. A major snowstorm could force cancellations along some parts of the East Coast. Make-up sessions would be offered with the current exam.
Looking ahead to March, 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 in an interview. "No surprises. No mystery."
The test had last been revised in 2005.
The new makeover focuses less on arcane vocabulary words like "lachrymose" and more on real-world learning and analysis by students. There also is no longer a penalty for guessing on the redesigned exam, and the essay will be optional. Students who decide not to write an essay would see about 50 minutes shaved off the length of the test.
Phil Pine, who runs the test preparation company, Capital Educators, in the Washington, D.C., area, says he's dissuaded his students from rushing to take this weekend's scheduled test since that version will soon disappear and 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 spent months studying and feel ready.
College counselor Phillip Trout in Minnesota says very few of his students at Minnetonka High School are opting for Saturday's 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, president of the National Association for College Admission Counseling. "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 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.
Other significant changes:
—In math, students will see more algebra and problem solving, instead of testing a wide range of math concepts.
—Use of calculators will be limited. They will be allowed only on certain math questions, instead of on the entire math portion.
—Essay portion will be optional.
—Top score goes back to 1,600 with a separate score for the essay, compared with Saturday's possible total of 2,400.
The College Board has teamed up with online educator Khan Academy to offer SAT practice with the new exam — for free — to all students through diagnostic quizzes and interactive practice tests. The tests are available at https://www.khanacademy.org/sat.