One calculator plus two sharp pencils plus four hours of intense, mental effort: College entrance tests add up to a big deal for many high school students. They know good scores on the tests can be tickets to opportunity.
About 50 students arrived before dawn Saturday at Kenai Peninsula College to take the school year's first Scholastic Aptitude Test, or SAT, the most popular of the tests.
Kenai Central High School senior Greg Landua said he was there because the SAT is essential for entry into the most prestigious colleges and is a qualifier for some scholarships.
"I really don't want to limit myself in my college choices," he said.
Vicki Madden, counseling secretary at Skyview High School near Soldotna, agreed about the tests' importance.
"A lot of college and university requirements for admission, they go by the test scores," she said.
The tests are not for everyone, but more and more students are taking them. For college-bound students, they have become standard practice. Unlike past generations, modern students are preparing beforehand and taking the tests multiple times to boost their scores.
Students can choose from an array of study aids and approaches.
"They offer packets about the SAT and the ACT," Landua said. "Most of my research has been done on the Internet. There are sites that outline what to expect."
Nikiski Middle-Senior High School seniors Laura Covich and Chris Roofe got together with friends for study sessions once a week over the month leading up to the test. They used CD-ROM and book guides, working through sample test questions. The practice definitely helped, both said afterward.
"It was long," Covich said of the two-part test. "It was all right. It wasn't as hard as I thought it would be."
The students said they will take the SAT again if they don't get the scores they want.
Landua said he knew of one student several years ago who took the SAT eight times and achieved a 1,600 -- the highest possible score.
He considers his Saturday tests a practice run and intends to study a set of SAT flash cards and retake the tests in December, he said.
More than 83 percent of four-year colleges use SAT scores as a factor in admission, and the percentage of students taking the test has climbed over the past few decades from 33 percent in 1980 to 44 percent for the Class of 2000, according to the Web site of the College Board, which issues the tests.
Such tests also are prerequisites for other programs. For example, the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test (PSAT) does double duty as the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying Exam, and students seeking entry into the Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth summer programs must score above predetermined cut-off levels on the SAT as seventh- or eighth-graders.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough School District has not tallied student scores on the tests, said Ed McLain, the assistant superintendent in charge of instruction.
Trying to compare scores between schools or years is flawed, he warned. In general, the greater the percentage of students taking the tests, the lower the average scores. Having students taking the tests multiple times further confuses the results.
See TESTS, page B-2
"The complexity of the analysis makes the data not very useful," he said.
According to the College Board, 50 percent of Alaska high school graduates last year took the SAT, and their average scores were slightly above the national averages.
Both ACT and SAT are run by large, nonprofit organizations. The College Board was founded in 1900 to assist students and parents with information about attending college, including test evaluations and financial aid. ACT Inc. began as the American College Testing Program in 1959. Its activities focus on research and assessment for educational planning, career planning and work force development.
The ACT has four sections, including English, mathematics, reading and science. The SAT, which is more formally called the SAT I Reasoning Test, has two sections, verbal and mathematical.
The College Board offers other tests for high school students as well: the PSAT, the SAT II subject tests and Advanced Placement exams.
Some students will take the PSAT Saturday. The first ACT test of the year will be Oct. 28. The next SAT test date is Nov. 4. Registration is about six weeks in advance, but for additional fees students can register late.
To register, talk to a high school guidance counselor or check out the organizations' Web sites at www.collegeboard.org and www.act.org.
The students who have taken the tests offered some advice.
"Do not get too worked up about it," Roofe said. "And get a good night's sleep the night before."
He pointed out that some students have problems scheduling the Saturday tests around other obligations. The fall tests conflict with wrestling tournaments, and he knew someone who missed state competition last year because of the SAT.
"They should do it twice a month, at least," he said.
Educators recommend students plan ahead to avoid those problems and others.
"Not everyone needs to take them," said Skyview Principal John Pothast, who worked on test prep programs at his previous job in Arizona.
Students should decide early in high school if they want to attend college and, if so, develop ideas of what their target school would require.
"The sooner you can determine that, the better off you're going to be," he said.
Soldotna High School counselor Sara Moore recommends students start off with the PSAT, because it is cheaper and geared toward juniors. About 60 percent of the students at her school take the tests, she estimated. The ACT is more popular for college in the Midwest and science students. For the coasts and other subjects, the SAT is preferred, she said.
Many students take both.
"SoHi students probably take them an average of twice," Moore said.
She and Pothast stressed that students need to keep the tests in context and realize the scores will not make or break a college career.
"It seems I am constantly trying to help kids understand it is only part of the puzzle," Moore said.
Colleges are more interested in a students' transcript showing good grades in difficult, advance placement classes, she said.
Central peninsula high schools are planning a more active role helping students score well in the future.
"What can we do to help them get into the schools they want?" asked Pothast.
In answer, his school plans to offer after-school tutoring second quarter and to buy materials and software dealing with the SAT and ACT, he said.
"I would like to see kids walking out of (the tests) feeling more than OK," he said. "I'd like them to walk out feeling really good."
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