Schools face learning curve with SAT prep

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

High school juniors across Michigan are in pre-test mode this fall as they prepare to take the SAT instead of the ACT in April.

Skye Logan, left, and Kierra Rogers, both juniors, take the PSAT at Madison High last week.

The transition to a new version of the SAT college assessment exam, announced in January, has sparked controversy, and some experts warn it won’t be seamless.

That’s at least partly because districts’ programs to get students, parents and teachers up to speed on the new test vary widely, said Wendy Zdeb-Roper, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals.

“It is all over the place in terms of what is being done,” she said.

The association urged districts to offer students, especially juniors, the PSAT, a preliminary version of the SAT, this month. Zdeb-Roper said more than 140,000 Michigan students in grades 8-11 were to take the PSAT.

MASSP also recommended that schools arrange for juniors to get free online test prep through Khan Academy, a nonprofit that provides education services.

“As an association, we’ve been helping our members to make this transition since the day the announcement occurred,” Zdeb-Roper said. “There is definitely a hit-or-miss approach in terms of information districts are sharing with parents, school board members and the community.”

The ACT covers English, math, reading and science, and has an optional writing exam, while the SAT tests students’ aptitude in math, reading and writing. Colleges in Michigan accept either exam for admission.

The College Board, the New York-based company that administers the SAT, won a three-year contract worth $17.1 million to offer the test in Michigan. State officials said the switch would save Michigan more than $15 million.

Michigan high school juniors will take the SAT for free in April.

More than 140,000 Michigan students in grades 8-11 were to take the PSAT, a preliminary version of the SAT, last week.

Some Metro Detroit districts have adjusted their high school curriculum in the SAT subjects, including tests that simulate the college assessment.

In the Madison District Public Schools, high school students have taken four timed practice SAT exams since January, Superintendent Randy Speck said.

The district also is offering after-school tutoring.

“Teachers at the high school, across all subjects, are incorporating high-stakes testing elements in their daily instruction, formative assessments, quizzes and tests,” Speck said.

“This is occurring at all grade levels to get students acquainted to the exam.”

He said administrators and teacher leaders are working to identify similarities and differences in the SAT and the ACT. In addition, students took the PSAT last Wednesday.

Students in grades 8-11 in the Grosse Pointe Public Schools also took the PSAT, with the exam required for juniors. The test-takers will receive a personalized analysis of their scores and a study plan to shore up weak spots, with test prep offered through the Khan Academy.

“Students, parents and faculty want to know how the student did and what they can do to do better next spring,” said Superintendent Gary Niehaus, who wants to reassure parents that their children will be ready for the SAT by April.

“Students tend to adjust to change better than the adults,” he said. “College entrance is a primary focus of high school juniors across GPPSS and Michigan.”

Gowri Yerramalli, 16, a junior at Grosse Pointe North, took the PSAT last week and said she now has a better idea of what she needs to do before the SAT.

“I would review a lot more,” she said. “There was one section — the reading section — I would review because I was feeling a little unprepared.”

Grosse Pointe teachers held review sections in class leading up to the PSAT and gave a practice test.

“Our teachers are doing a really good job of getting us up to speed,” Yerramalli said.

To help students and parents get acclimated to the new exam, the Utica Community Schools hosted a forum this month with representatives from the College Board, who gave an overview of the SAT and answered questions.

“Our parents expect their children to be successful and are requesting more information on how they can support academic achievement,” Utica Superintendent Christine Johns said.

Mary Beth Nicholson, president of the Grosse Pointe North Parents Club, said students are used to standardized testing.

“Grosse Pointe North’s approach has been to prepare the students in the classroom, while supporting the existing rich curriculum,” she said.

“This was true when ACT was the standard, and now it continues with the newly designed SAT.”

But some education experts question whether switching to a different exam — and adding more tests to get ready for the new SAT — will help students learn or burn them out.

Bob Schaeffer, public education director of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a Boston-based nonprofit, said he doesn’t believe states should be imposing additional standardized exams on students “who are already the most overtested in the world.”

“However, if policymakers in Lansing (or Washington) mandate tests that could have significant educational consequences, we understand why public schools devote time and resources to test coaching,” he said.

Robert Floden, director of the Institute for Research on Teaching and Learning at Michigan State University, said students should consider test prep programs to help them get ready for the SAT.

“Since the SAT is not yet closely tied to high school curriculum content, there may be some advantage to specific preparation for the test, beyond working hard in all your high school classes,” he said.

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