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Why the new SAT is spooking high school students

The prospect of taking the SAT or ACT has been stress-inducing for millions of American teenagers over the years, but the angst is even more palpable this year for high school juniors.

The source of the extra stress is the new, completely overhauled SAT that the College Board will roll out in March 2016. The new SAT is considered to be better aligned with college-level thinking, reading and writing. And it's going to be harder!

The release date of the new SAT will be too late for current high school seniors to take, and ninth and 10th graders have the luxury of waiting to see the reviews of the new SAT test before deciding whether to take it.

So, it falls to 11th graders to tackle this test first or embrace the alternatives. Here are the three test options that juniors have, along with their remaining testing dates in the 2015-16 school year:

Current SAT dates: Nov. 7, Dec. 5, Jan. 23

New SAT dates: March 5, May 7, June 4

ACT dates: Oct. 24, Dec. 12, Feb. 6, April 9, June 11

What's new about the tests

Students taking rigorous college-prep classes, including advanced-placement courses that expose them to challenging reading, will be much better prepared for the new SAT. Students will find advanced reading not only in the SAT's revised reading section, but also in the essay and mathematics sections. So, students who aren't strong readers are likely to struggle with the new test.

The math questions are also more complex because the new version has additional contextual word problems. And the essay will be more challenging because it will require additional analytical and writing skills that are typical of college-level work.

What experts are recommending

Many experts suggest that the majority of 11th graders should steer clear of the new test for now. "It's best to avoid being a guinea pig for the new SAT," said Adam Ingersoll, a co-founder of Compass Education Group, a test-prep firm based in both Beverly Hills, Calif., and San Francisco. "The available practice tests and scaling for the new SAT are half-baked compared to its competitor (the ACT), and there's little reason to sit for this test until it establishes a track record."

During the transition, the ACT represents the best option for most 11th graders, Ingersoll counsels. The ACT is a known quantity, and if students don't fare well on that exam, it will be easier to transition to the new SAT than to move from the old SAT to the new SAT version.

Jed Applerouth, founder of Applerouth Testing Services in Atlanta, suggests that 11th graders who as sophomores earned great scores when they took the PSAT (an SAT proxy) should consider taking the old SAT before it disappears. "They'll need to finish their testing by January," Applerouth noted, "so they'd better get busy (preparing)."

Many juniors took the PSAT on Oct. 14, when it was offered at high schools throughout the country. This PSAT is the first to be geared to the new SAT, and those who ace this test may want to take the new SAT when it debuts.

One reason experts are hesitating to endorse the new SAT for juniors concerns the considerable delay in getting their scores back. The scores for the March test won't be available before the next testing date in May. Traditionally, students have been able to see what they did wrong on the SAT in time to practice before the next test occurred.

While the transition period may be be frustrating for juniors, Applerouth predicted the revamped SAT will be worth the aggravation. "This new SAT is an improvement," he said. "Having spent four months analyzing the new SAT and several months preparing students for the upcoming SAT-aligned PSAT, we are confident that the College Board and ETS have made a superior college-level assessment."

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