Sophie Lynford says her friends can hardly believe her audacity. They arch their eyebrows and wonder why she would move so quickly. They talk, often and worriedly, increasing one another's anxiety with every conversation.
On the inaugural run of the new SAT in March, Sophie, a junior at Croton-Harmon High School, will be among the first students in the county to take it - despite the opinion of her friends and some others that it might be better to hold off until the next time, in May.
"I just want to get this done and over with and then just focus on other things the rest of the year," was Sophie's rationale. "Really, I just don't want to have to think about it anymore."
She is undoubtedly not alone in that wish. But anywhere there are high school juniors this season, the new SAT, with all its imponderables, is increasing the agitation. Some worried families are seeing a potential academic stumbling block of mountainous proportions. In these circles, the subject of the test is almost impossible to avoid. There is too much money being expended on test preparation, and too much energy on wondering what to expect.
The bare-bones facts are these: What used to be a two-part, three-hour ordeal, half math, half verbal, will now require students to spend 45 more minutes completing an extra writing section. The new section will consist of three parts - one an essay, the other two multiple-choice grammar and sentence-completion questions.
In addition, the math and verbal sections are undergoing changes. The math will for the first time include questions on advanced algebra. The chief difference in the verbal will be the absence of multiple-choice analogies ("curd is to cheese as slurry is to ...").
These changes are in turn affecting what is known as the SAT II, a separate series of tests in a range of different subjects. Applicants to more selective colleges are usually required to take three SAT II tests. But a widely taken one - a writing test - is being eliminated, effectively displaced by the new writing section in the SAT. That will leave some students scrambling for a third subject in which they feel proficient enough to take the SAT II.
Beyond the bare bones lies a huge gray area. Juniors are aware, for instance, that the "perfect" score for the new test will be 2400, not 1600. But what many are worried about is how that score will be arrived at - especially given that scoring an essay is subjective at best.
"Nobody is 100 percent confident with what's going to happen," said Lloyd Lynford, Sophie's father. "You can take all these practice tests and not really know what your score is going to be. There's this comparative void out there that didn't used to be. Whatever really happens is a crap shoot."
In this transition test year, a major part of that crap shoot has to do with the colleges, and which ones will want what. Some have said they will accept the old SAT, which was administered for the last time earlier this month. Some have been unclear about which they will weight more heavily - the old or the new.
There is also variation when it comes to SAT II requirements. Columbia, Duke and Brown, for instance, will lower their requirement to two SAT II tests, but Harvard and Princeton will still ask for three.
Then there is the issue of timing. Students who hold off taking the SAT until May could lose time they might otherwise spend studying for Advanced Placement exams. And for the ones who apply early decision, the October SAT is clearly too late.
"We're talking about very practical problems," said Carol Gill, who runs a private college-admission counseling firm in Dobbs Ferry. "We have to call and check with every school. Parents have to push to find out the answers, because if you miss a test, you may end up missing the whole process."
A few students, like Eric Fell, a junior at Ardsley High School, are trying to avoid the new test altogether. Eric says he is "not the best" writer and excels in the parts of the test that will be taken out, so he opted to take the old test in January, months earlier than most juniors. He says he has already made sure that this will be all right with the dozen or so colleges he is considering applying to, including Cooper Union.
"It all depends on how I do," he said a couple of days before taking the SAT. He was hoping for a score of 1350 but said he would settle for anything above 1200. "Basically, I'll figure it out later. If I have to take it again, I'll take it again."
College requisites aside, while people agonizingly await the test, it is proving a powerful generator of theory, rumor and outright myth. Some parents wonder if their children's chances may not be improved by taking it in March, because there now seem to be even fewer competitors to be compared with. The March test typically gets about 15 percent fewer students than other dates, say administrating officials from the College Board, but this year registration is down even further - about 10 percent from the same test date last year.
"That's exactly what we're expecting it to be," said Photo Anagnostopoulos, senior vice president for product development at the College Board. "It's been a long time since we've had this kind of a chance and you always see a short drop."
That one-time drop will almost certainly pick up by the May date, Ms. Anagnostopoulos said, as students trade notes about the changes and glean as much intelligence as possible from the pioneers.
"There is all kinds of mythology out there, about whether they are going to be harder or easier in March," said Eric's tutor, David Hutt, whose firm is called Scorebusters. "Nobody knows. It's all guessing at this point."
But as far as Sophie's counselors at Croton-Harmon are concerned, they are in sync with a number of private tutors and college admissions officials in advising students to wait.
"They say never buy the first model of a car," was the way Ms. Gill put it, "so there's that element."
The uncertainties surrounding the new test present a risk not worth taking, agreed Adam Robinson, the author of "Rocket Review Revolution," a SAT prep book popular with students and tutors in Westchester. He added: "The March test really has nothing going for it. The test is still an unknown, the content is a bit unknown and scaling is unknown." (Scaling means scoring.)
Mr. Robinson dismisses the approach of having students take the March test for "practice" and then retake it in May, June or October.
"It's not fair to tell a kid, just take it and if you get your score and don't like it you can retake it," he said. "Of course they're not going to like it. That's not the way it happens. Back on Planet Earth, nobody likes their score the first time around."
This was also the feeling among private tutors at Inspirica, a New York-based company, and from Ms. Gill's firm, Carol Gill Associates. Many said students should simply take the test as soon as they feel ready.
As Mr. Hutt, Eric's tutor, put it, "I try to get them prepared for one and then have them move on with their lives."
Lisa Jacobson, chief executive of Inspirica, concurred, saying: "The fewer tests these kids can take, the better. You're in the middle of it now and students just don't know what to do. If they aren't educated about what the options are, they are going to be more stressed out."
The biggest stress of all, naturally, surrounds the essay test. There is even chatter about preparing essays in advance, then simply tweaking them to fit the prompts given on the day of the test.
The essay, although brief, "is the kind of thing that they will see often in college in one form or another," said William Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard, which has required applicants to take the SAT II writing test for years. He views the writing portion as a better indicator of how students will perform in college than the SAT verbal section. "It allows a student to make an argument, set up to say, 'here's what I am going to do and here is how I am going to do it.'
"It's not creative writing. It's merely the ability to sit down, give an argument and give evidence to support that argument. What is surprising is that so many students cannot do it."
All Sophie Lynford now knows about the new part of the test is that the prompt will ask her to write some kind of persuasive essay and use a few examples to support her opinion. Though she aspires to work for magazines, Sophie is certain the SAT is not the place to show off her creativity, since readers are looking for clear, concise writing. Her tutor, who works for Inspirica, has taught her to use "flag words" like "secondly" and "in conclusion," to signal to readers where they are in the essay.
"All you need is one linking sentence and that's it, you're golden," she said confidently. Her father is certain she will do well, but has a touch more concern - chiefly because of the scoring issue.
Two readers, typically high school English teachers, will read each essay and assign a score from one to six. That score will count for one-third of the writing score, with the rest coming from grammar and sentence-completion questions.
It is unlikely that any of the thousands of readers hired to read the essays will spend more than a couple of minutes on each essay, and it is difficult to guess what their precise criteria will be.
That is certainly the test's big mystery at this point, said Mr. Robinson, who in the last two and a half decades has written dozens of test-preparation books for the Princeton Review. He pointed out that in the practice tests available from the College Board, score ranges have a 200 point spread.
"You could get 75 percent of the questions right and look at the scoring to see that's between a 1900 and 2100," he said. "That's the difference between a really good score and a merely good score. I have no way to advise that kid."
With all of the anxiety, there is a lot of advising going on, not to mention thousands of dollars in tutor billing. Several months ago, Mr. Lynford hired a tutor to work with Sophie, who says she has spent at least 100 hours studying, and will probably put in another 50 hours before March.
Every week she goes through a practice test and tries to tally her score. At one point, she said, she had been reaching the high 700's in writing, but the score has slipped over the last couple tests.
"We were like, hmmm, how did that happen?" Sophie said. "But this is all about tricks. They look at the same things all the time and you just have to know how to take the test. It's all the same tricks to know what to expect."
Ms. Jacobson, who leads seminars on differences between the old and the new SAT's, says that when it comes to knowing what to expect, she perceives more worry and uncertainty among suburban parents than those who live in the city.
"The farther you get out from Manhattan, they start later and find it more frustrating," she said. "The culture has changed under people's feet. Many people went to these schools, but don't know how things work now."
There also seems to be a suburban reticence on the subject of tutoring. Though guidance counselors and other experts in Westchester acknowledge that a huge percentage of students rely on tutors or attend SAT-prep classes, many parents and students seem embarrassed to admit they have such help.
At one of Inspirica's sessions last week, more than a dozen Manhattan parents chatted, comparing notes and swapping friendly stories about their children's progress in chemistry and Spanish. A handful of parents from Westchester came in quietly and kept to themselves.
Standing before the group, Ms. Jacobson drew a line to divide a large piece of paper in half, writing "old" on top of one column and "new" across the other. The old test was about aptitude, she explained; the new test is more about measuring achievement.
"We think this is a good thing," she explained to the crowd of anxious parents. "It measures more of what they are already learning in school."
But the speculation continues, even as tutors, counselors and teachers try to assuage fears and slow down the rumor mill.
Ms. Jacobson's advice on that topic: "You have to find somebody you can really trust rather than anyone you run into at the supermarket. Otherwise everything just feeds the frenzy."
In his calmer moments, Lloyd Lynford thinks back to the days when there was just one simple test - before the added laundry list of state requirements, Advanced Placement exams and the SAT variety pack.
He remembers being "traumatized" when studying for the dreaded analogies, and is happy that that anxiety, at least, is a thing of the past.
"I think this begins a long-awaited healing process for many in my generation," said Mr. Lynford, 51, with a laugh. "At least there's a chance now for kids to express their individuality, even if this writing test is going to be graded formulaically."
Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company