SAT unknowns heighten jitters in Michigan

Shawn D. Lewis
The Detroit News

Michigan high school juniors and educators are crossing their fingers as students prepare next week to take the state’s new college entrance exam, a redesigned version of the SAT.

The exam, to be given for the first time April 12, marks the biggest change in testing for the state’s college-bound students since 2007, when Michigan began using the ACT as its main exam to test students’ readiness for higher education.

State officials began the countdown to the new exam in January 2015 by agreeing to a three-year, $17.1 million contract with the College Board to administer the SAT for free to Michigan high school juniors. Michigan’s switch came a year after the College Board announced it would revise the test for the first time since 2005 to more closely reflect what today’s high school students are learning.

Through a mix of classroom instruction, online study guides and programs offered by the College Board, educators and students say they’ve done the best they can to get ready for the new test over the past 15 months.

Metro Detroit school officials like Ben Harwood say the revised SAT arrives amid other changes in the state’s educational landscape.

Michigan students took a new statewide assessment last year, the M-STEP, and that test is likely to be revised in future years. The state’s schools also are increasing attention on science, technology, engineering and math learning to prepare students for high-tech careers.

“Uncertainty is the biggest concern,” said Harwood, assistant principal at Madison High School in Madison Heights. “Not only is this the first year our testing switches from the ACT to the SAT, but the SAT itself has experienced a significant redesign.

“The focus is on mathematics and reading/English only, which really isn’t 100 percent in step with the direction towards STEM that many schools have started heading — ours included,” Harwood said. “Until we see the exam and can start poring over the data, I’m not certain the test is fully aligned with state curriculum either.”

Harwood said after years of the ACT, most schools began to get a feeling of target scores for which to aim.

“We knew what constituted improvement and, compared to years previous, what scores and data trends called for additional attention or targeted improvement,” he said. “With the SAT, we’re pretty much starting over.”

Like many juniors, Noor Alzuabidi, 16, of Dearborn’s Edsel Ford High School has studied online for the new SAT through the Khan Academy, a nonprofit that provides education services.

“It’s a little stressful to me when I’m timed,” she said. “But I feel prepared because we’ve been practicing in my AP composition class and in math. I also practice with the Khan Academy, which is about an hour, so altogether, I’m spending close to two hours a day practicing for the exam. I’m also kind of nervous because the scoring process is different this year.”

Scoring changes on the new exam include ending the penalty for incorrect guesses and returning to a 1,600-point scale. The new SAT also has fewer questions — 154 compared with 215 on the ACT — and test takers will get more time to answer each question — 70 seconds, up from 49 seconds.

Other changes: Eliminating obscure vocabulary words, focusing on math that “matters most” and limiting calculator use.

The new version of the SAT, which is accepted at all Michigan universities, is expected to take about three hours to complete, not counting the optional essay.

Wendy Zdeb-Roper, executive director of the Michigan Association of Secondary School Principals, said students did not have much time to get ready for the redesign.

“This year’s juniors had a very limited window to change gears and prepare,” she said. “Schools all over the state have been working diligently to learn about the new assessment and to design activities to prepare the students.”

Training opportunities included administering the PSAT exam last fall to more than 140,000 Michigan students, “which gave students a first look at the College Board tests,” Zdeb-Roper said. “Students were then encouraged to link their College Board accounts with Khan Academy for personalized learning remediation road maps.”

She said the College Board also “provided workshops all over the state for principals, counselors and ISD staff to ensure that educators are well-prepared to share information with students and parents in terms of the redesigned SAT.”

College Board spokeswoman Jaslee Carayol said the testing nonprofit conducted multiple workshops and conferences for Michigan educators to familiarize them with the new exam.

“College Board has worked closely with the Michigan Department of Education to support the implementation of the SAT,” she said.

Andrew Palmer, a junior at University High School in Ferndale, said he has devoted an hour a day to prepare for the exam.

“I’m, a little nervous, but for the most part, I’m prepared to take the SAT,” he said. “I’m feeling good about it because I take advantage of the Khan Academy at home and at school. I don’t want to over-cram for it. I don’t think there will be any surprises because, for example, we’re constantly working on the writing.”

Youssef Mosallam, executive director of student achievement for Dearborn Public Schools, said he and the teachers of students preparing for the test are concerned by the “limited exposure our students have had with the SAT and the format of the SAT.”

To counteract that, the district has encouraged students to take online practice exams and use study guides.

“Many times, the make-up of a test can affect student success,” Mosallam said. “Therefore, we are hoping that the exposure we are giving students to the SAT-style questions will limit their anxiety.”

Martin Ackley, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Education, said state education officials have not heard any concerns from students about the new SAT.

“We do know that students have been actively engaged in preparing for the SAT by using the free preparation materials provided by the College Board in its Khan Academy platform,” he said.

But not all educators think cramming for the new SAT is the best use of students’ — or teachers’ — time.

Bob Schaeffer, the public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, a Boston-based nonprofit, called the redesigned SAT a “facelift.”

“The revisions do not address the exam’s historic problems: weak prediction, bias and susceptibility to test prep,” he said. “As a measurement tool, the ‘redesigned’ SAT is no better or worse than the ACT. The changes simply make the SAT appear more consumer-friendly by making it look more like the ACT.”

Rod Rock, superintendent of Clarkston Community Schools, said too much emphasis is placed on the SAT and similar exams.

“A student’s SAT scores, and all standardized test scores, should be a reflection of the effort a student puts into learning; the level at which they challenge themselves,” he said. “I hope Clarkston does not waste time and money on test preparation. I hope our classroom time is spent on thinking, learning, collaboration, and developing understanding. I hope our students do their very best on every test they take — in school and in life.”

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