Perfection has changed for high school juniors.
Until recently, the highest score on the SAT, the classic high school assessment considered by college admissions departments and scholarship committees, had been 1,600. Now, a new writing component has raised it to 2,400.
The writing portion was no problem for Amherst High School student Sarah Gardner, who got a perfect score on the essay and an overall SAT tally of 2,140.
"For the most part it's pretty good," she said this week. "I had signed up for the SAT in May just to be safe, in case my score wasn't decent."
Not everyone feels so comfortable. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds, who got their SAT results this week, now wonder how those scores will figure in college admissions. They also want to know how they fared compared with the 310,000 students who took the test nationally.
So do their parents.
"It is a little confusing trying to figure out what colleges are going to think," said Liz Devine, a Nardin Academy junior who took the new test. "It's difficult to say how they're going to count it."
The College Board, which develops and administers the test, added the writing section, worth 800 points, this year. It consists of an essay hand-marked by at least two graders with three years' experience teaching English, as well as multiple-choice grammar questions.
Sarah got a 12, the highest possible score, on the essay and a 770 out of 800 on the entire writing section.
Her essay score was considerably higher than the national average of 7.5, said Bernard A. Phelan, an English teacher from Illinois who serves on the seven-member national SAT committee that helps decide essay topics.
"Private tutoring was a big expense," Sarah admitted. "A lot of parents have a few kids, though, and can't afford the $2,000 expense. A lot of kids try to prepare on their own, but it's difficult."
Liz, a junior who didn't prepare for the test, said she will have to take it again.
She said she received a 700 on the writing section and an overall score of 1,980. She already has started tutoring and has signed up for an upcoming test.
Jane Mathias, Nardin's director of counseling, said 1,803 was the average score for the 110 juniors at the private, all-girls school who took the test last month. One student achieved a perfect score.
What do the numbers mean?
"A score of 1,800 to 1,820 on the whole thing is compared to 1,210 to 1,230 on the (old) SAT or a 27 on ACT," Mathias said, citing a conversion chart provided by the Princeton Review, a national chain of test prep centers.
Mathias said a score of 1,000 has generally been considered average on the former SAT.
That means a 1,500 would be considered average on the new test.
Although students received their scores this week, most public schools in the region don't expect the information until next week. Nardin got them early because it can receive scores electronically, while many public schools report that they are waiting on mailed results.
At North Tonawanda High School, which received its scores late this week, guidance counselor Cathy DeMarchis had begun compiling the data Friday afternoon.
While she hadn't figured out the average test scores, DeMarchis said the 68 North Tonawanda students -- mostly juniors -- who took the revised test had receive an average of 7.4 on the essay. The highest essay score at the school was a 10.
"If students are in a good writing program, they'll do well, but schools are mighty, mighty uneven out there," Phelan said. "In fairness, some kids are at an advantage, and some are at a disadvantage."
Many local and national colleges have decided not to count the writing portion of the SAT on the first test and will spend a few years figuring out what the new numbers mean.
Niagara University will not consider the SAT writing portion for admission, but intends to study the high school Class of 2006 once its members become college freshmen to establish a policy, said Michael Konopski, director of admissions.
The university, he said, will compare the grades these students receive at Niagara with their test scores to determine how well the test predicted their performance in college.
The University at Buffalo will not use the scores for the first year and might await results from studies by the State University of New York before setting policy.
Applicants to Fredonia State need not worry too much, either.
"We'll take a look at scores in terms of how (SAT) writing scores compare to English Regents tests," said Michael Bleecher, an associate director of admissions. "We're still going to receive those scores from the College Board, and we'll have access to those scores. They're just not going to be used as an evaluative tool."
Private colleges probably will undertake their own research on the new scores, admissions officials said.
Despite those reassurances, many students likely will hit the books again for a chance at a higher score.
"Usually a large majority will take it again, but this gives them a baseline score," Mathias said. "But again, I recommend they prepare. Just taking it again will not raise their score."
Teachers say students who can't afford special classes or tutoring have other options.
"Ordinary students can take advantage of the stuff that's free on the (College Board) Web site (www.collegeboard.com)," Phelan said. "If I were a kid, I would scrape together the 20 bucks for an official guide to the SAT."