August 30, 2006
By ROBERT A. FRAHM, Courant Staff Writer
A new writing test on the SAT college entrance exam made the exam longer and, some believe, more difficult, but that didn't stop Connecticut high school graduates from posting strong writing scores in results released Tuesday.
An elite few, such as Tiffany Yuh, were letter-perfect.
The New Milford High School graduate was one of only nine students in Connecticut and 238 throughout the nation to score 2400 on the SAT, getting perfect 800s on the math and reading portions of the test and on the newly added writing section, which includes an essay.
Nationwide, there were less than one-fourth the number of perfect scores this year, compared with a year ago, when the SAT included only the reading and math sections, and 1600 constituted a perfect mark.
Nearly 1.5 million students took the test this year, and overall they recorded the sharpest one-year scoring decline in three decades, making Yuh's accomplishment even more notable.
"I just couldn't believe it," Yuh, 17, said Tuesday from the campus of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where she is a freshman. The test "wasn't too hard, but I didn't expect to get a 2400, that's for sure."
Yuh got the perfect score after compiling a sparkling record at New Milford High, where educators described her as a soft-spoken, hardworking student with an exceptional talent in mathematics. After taking her high school's most advanced mathematics course, she enrolled in a graduate level statistics class at Western Connecticut State University.
"I used to grade her paper first to find any mistakes in my answer key," said David Shaffer, Yuh's calculus teacher and head of the math department at New Milford High.
"Her work ethic is unbelievable," he said. But, he added, she was involved in much more than just academics.
Yuh, who was her class valedictorian, also tutored others in Chinese, played in various musical groups and volunteered at a local hospital, Shaffer said.
Yuh chose MIT but also was accepted by colleges such as Dartmouth, Cornell and Brandeis. She has not decided on a career but is thinking about medical school. "Since I was young, my parents have encouraged me to do well in school," she said. "That really instilled the motivation in me to really work hard."
Throughout the nation, 8,862 students got perfect scores on the reading portion of the SAT and 8,057 were perfect on the math portion, but a much smaller number, 4,102, got perfect scores on the new writing portion, according to the College Board, which produces the test.
The writing test - which includes a series of multiple-choice questions on standard English usage, structure and organization - is the first major change in the SAT in more than a decade.
Among states in which more than half of graduating seniors took the test, Connecticut had the highest writing score, averaging 511, 14 points higher than the national average. In part, that might be the result of students' familiarity with timed writing exams, which have been part of the annual Connecticut Mastery Test for many years.
"We have had long and consistent experience teaching high-quality writing. ... It's one of the national areas we're leading in," said acting state Education Commissioner George A. Coleman.
Connecticut students, however, posted a 1-point decline in mathematics and a 5-point drop in critical reading since last year. State averages were 512 in reading and 516 in math. U.S. students had a similar 5-point decline in reading, dropping to 503, and fell 2 points in math to 518.
Connecticut had the third-highest participation rate in the nation, with 84 percent of high school seniors taking the SAT, compared with a 48 percent average nationwide. Generally, higher participation rates result in lower scores.
Although Connecticut's scores have risen in the past decade, Coleman said, "I'm particularly concerned when I see the curve going the wrong way, even if it's just for one year."
He said he is frustrated by the chronic gaps that show black and Hispanic students trailing white and Asian students by large margins.
Coleman praised the handful of students with perfect scores, including six from public schools. In addition to Yuh, the other public school top scorers came from Cheshire, East Lyme, Granby, Weston and Wilton, Coleman said. "I'm very impressed with them," he said.
The latest SAT results come several months after numerous colleges reported surprisingly low scores on the exam for this year's incoming freshmen.
The College Board said that the scores declined partly because some students took the new, longer test only once instead of twice.
Although Yuh had no trouble with the SAT, she described it as "really long" and said it is possible that the length of the test had something to do with the overall decline in scores.
"It's easy to get kind of tired and lose your concentration," she said.
College Board officials, however, insisted that fatigue did not contribute to the lower scores even though the new test runs about three hours and 45 minutes. Others, however, said that the test's length was a factor.
"The kids found the test such an excruciating marathon that they didn't want to take it again," said Bob Schaeffer of FairTest, a Massachusetts-based watchdog organization that is critical of standardized tests such as the SAT.
"Everything we've heard anecdotally ... has students reporting they are drained by the test," he said.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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