AHS works to boost SAT scores | AspenTimes.com

AHS works to boost SAT scores

Eben Harrell
Junior Christy Severy, left, and sophomore Kyla Walter listen as Aspen High teacher Nancy Roach goes over a mock SAT test in the schools seminar room last week. (Paul Conrad/The Aspen Times)

Every Tuesday and Thursday morning at 7 a.m., amid empty classrooms and soon-to-be crowded halls, Aspen High School’s junior class prepare themselves for the upcoming SAT.Did you catch the error in that sentence? The junior class at Aspen High School better have. The junior class prepares itself. Or Aspen High School juniors prepare themselves.This kind of verbal trickery has been giving high school students headaches for years. And if the esteemed SAT was not intimidating enough, this year’s test is altogether new and different.The College Board has redesigned the SAT. It is longer, has more advanced math, and now requires students to write a persuasive essay. The scores have changed, too. 1,600 is now nothing to brag about; 2,400 is the new perfect score. “My mom wanted me to get a head start as a sophomore so I could learn the new test,” student Kyla Walter said. “I heard it’s longer and there’s now an essay.”Bringing up the scoresThe new test debuts as an Aspen School District committee prepares to release a report detailing disappointing performances by Aspen High’s top students on the SAT over the last five years.

Aspen students in the top quarter of their class based on grade point average are not performing as well as students with comparable GPAs at other schools, the report will reveal. The high school has never had a perfect score.”The report looks at whether our top students are getting the scores they need to get into the schools they want. And what we found is that no, not in all cases. The truth is that colleges have gotten more competitive. We have bright kids. So we need to make sure they are getting the scores they need,” college adviser Cathy Klug said. District officials are also looking at why the school on the whole hasn’t performed better recently. Aspen High School’s mean SAT score directly matched the state average last year, despite above-average scores on other standardized tests such as Colorado Student Assessment Program tests. Aspen students averaged 554 points on verbal and 532 points on math, based on the old SAT scoring. State averages were 554 and 533, respectively. This despite an overall mark of “excellent” on CSAP test performance at Aspen High last year.”We outperform on other standardized tests, so why don’t we outperform on SATs? We need to nail this one. The colleges put so much value on the test. It’s very timely we look at this,” Klug said.SAT prep courseAs a first step to improving scores, the high school set up an extensive, 12-class prep course for the May 7 SAT. Klug, formerly the literacy coordinator at the high school, now is a full-time college adviser; one of her main tasks is administering the prep course.The classes are on Tuesdays and Thursdays at either 7 a.m. or 3:30 p.m. Around 80 juniors out of 132 enrolled. Ten sophomores and one freshman also signed up. High school teachers were recruited to teach the test’s three sections: math, critical reading and writing.

Thanks to a grant by the Aspen Education Foundation, the course costs students $100. In contrast, the Princeton Review, a popular private tutoring company, charges more than $1,000 for its 14-course review. Private one-on-one tutoring can push $3,000.”Our school-run program is for those students that maybe can’t afford or choose not to take private courses. There are also some students who are doing both. It’s just to make sure no one slips through the cracks,” guidance counselor Karen Angus said.Two tests, same stressOne complication to the school-run prep course is that it prepares students for two different college entrance exams – the SAT and the ACT. Recently, Colorado’s board of education made ACT exams mandatory for juniors. The test, which measures academic achievement rather than aptitude, is used in place of CSAP tests for the 11th grade.While most colleges accept the ACT, around 80 percent of Aspen students opt to take the SAT as well. It’s thought that schools on the East and West coasts, where many Aspen students end up, prefer SAT scores, while Midwestern schools prefer the ACT, according to Angus.Because students need to be prepared for both, the school-run prep course splits its time between the two tests.”Our prep course goes over ACT as well. But good test-taking skills apply to all standardized tests. There are strategies that are natural to test taking, no matter what the situation,” Klug said.The new test

So what exactly is new about the SAT? For starters, there’s more advanced math, including algebra topics such as absolute value and exponential growth. The analogies section is gone (black:white as large:small), as are the math section’s quantitative comparisons (greater than, less than or equal?). The test is now 45 minutes longer, running three hours and 45 minutes.The biggest change, however, is the new writing section, worth 800 points. It includes a 35-minute multiple choice section and a persuasive essay. For the essay, students are given 25 minutes to respond to a general prompt such as “Are people motivated to achieve by personal satisfaction rather than by money or fame?”Around 8,000 former and current high school and college teachers will have about one minute to read each of the roughly 330,000 essays students will write each time the test is administered. Clarity will be valued over creativity.English teacher Nancy Roach, who runs the writing section of the prep course, said she instructs students to lay out a thesis statement early in the essay and to make sure each paragraph has a topic statement. She also said students should choose an anecdote from an experience, a short story or other art form and work it into the essay.”I’m telling them that any time they can write ‘This reminded me of,’ they are on the right track,” Roach said.Roach said many of her students are anxious about the new test, concerned they are guinea pigs as the College Board works out the kinks. At least one student, however, isn’t sweating it. “I want to go to Colorado College, but I don’t know what SAT scores I need. I don’t know. I guess it’s good to prepare and just see how I do,” junior Christy Severy said.Eben Harrell’s e-mail address is eharrell@aspentimes.com

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