SAT coaching





By Barbara Matson, Globe Staff

February 16, 2003, Sunday


On a recent afternoon, Brookline High School junior Carly Sharon came to the Brookline Village office of Chyten Educational Services to practice writing her essay for the SAT II writing test.

Sharon, whose essay described a favorite painting at the Museum of Fine Arts and its effect on her, playfully chided owner Neil Chyten about the trio of gaudy paint-by-number landscapes on his office walls before settling down to work. Chyten called up a draft of her essay on his computer, and Sharon typed in a new paragraph she had been working on.

“I think I would change the word journey, to be honest with you,” Chyten said. “It’s kind of cliched.”

“I agree with you,” Sharon said. “I didn’t like it, but I couldn’t think of another word.”

The two consulted a thesaurus, but no alternatives appealed to them, and they put off a word change for their next session. For the rest of the hour, Chyten and Sharon concentrated on grammar, going over practice tests and noting error patterns.

At Chyten’s centers, students spend five, six, up to 12 hours with a tutor, writing, rewriting, and revising an all-purpose SAT essay. On test day, they repeat the essay, word for word, metaphor for metaphor.


“Because you’re basically guaranteed to get a really high score,” said Maxine Warren, a senior at the Winsor School in Boston, who scored 800 on the SAT II writing test in the 10th grade, after private tutoring at Chyten’s Newton offices. “The questions are so general and broad, you can take any essay and fit it and address the question only in the last sentence or two.”

As they develop a new writing section for the popular SAT I test, College Board officials insist that the test will assess a student’s writing ability, even if students prep for it.

But such tests have been a windfall for preparation centers such as Chyten’s, where students are taught test-taking with results that seem to have taken the College Board by surprise.

Prewriting “wouldn’t work, because they wouldn’t know what the prompt is going to be,” said Chiara Coletti, vice president for communication and public affairs at the College Board. “I just don’t know how they could do it.”

The writing portion of the new SAT I is being modeled on the SAT II writing test, required by top colleges and currently administered to about 231,000 college-bound seniors a year. The new SAT I will be given to as many as 2.5 million students a year, beginning in March 2005.

The test’s overhaul follows a threat from Richard C. Atkinson, president of the University of California system, to drop the SAT in favor of a test that more accurately assesses a student’s writing ability and mastery of the high school curriculum. While debate continues about what the SAT I measures, many educators, including Atkinson, consider the SAT II tests, including the writing test, a better measure of a student’s academic preparation.

“Sat IIs are a very good predictor of how people will do here,” said William R. Fitzsimmons, dean of admissions and financial aid at Harvard College. “I think the new SAT will be a better yardstick of what people here have accomplished.”

The SAT II writing test features a 20-minute handwritten essay in response to an open-ended prompt. Examples include: “Novelty is too often mistaken for progress” and “Human beings make mistakes, but they also have great moments. One of those great moments, in my opinion was . . . .”

The idea, said Coletti, is to measure “a student’s ability to write on demand with the kind of writing they will have to do in college, in the workplace, writing that is coherent, logical, and hangs together.”

“We do pay a lot of attention to it,” said Boston College director of admissions John L. Mahoney Jr. “In many ways, the SAT II writing test helps us to gauge the writing samples we receive. If it’s a high score, we expect a stellar essay. We put a lot of stock in it.”

Brian Bremen is an associate professor of English at the University of Texas-Austin and a chief reader for the SAT II writing test. He said he has been impressed with the quality of some of the essays he has graded.

“These are beautiful, insightful essays,” he said. “You don’t know how the kids wrote them in 20 minutes.”

Chyten said his students score an average of 747 on the SAT II writing test. His tutors teach students to write for the reader, he said, in this case, the College Board. Chyten’s approach is to begin by imagining how a teacher would grade the essay: If gratuitous alliteration will impress readers, then polish pulsating pieces of prose. If varied sentence structure scores points, do that. Imagine the educators writing the test; what are they getting at with this question?

“Your tutor requires you to make a pact together; it’s really a collaboration,” said Marissa Greenwald of Brookline, a freshman at Cornell University who studied with a Chyten tutor and also scored 800 on the SAT II writing test.

Knowing how the essay will be graded, a process Chyten explains to his students, provides the guidelines for his students’ essays. They will write “it felt like hot syrup oozing through my veins,” as Warren did, even if they know it’s not the kind of analytical writing that will fly in college.

“For a student to do well, you’ve got to understand the process, how the College Board grades, their technique, called holistic grading,” Chyten said. “Despite what people think, it’s 95 percent objective.”

The essays are graded quickly by readers searching for an established list of criteria while scoring each essay on a scale from 1 to 6.

“This is going to shock you,” said Bremen, who has been reading essays since the mid-1970s, “but the desirable speed is about 30-35 essays an hour. All you’re grading is the quality of the writing.”

“It might be three minutes; it might be two minutes,” said Wayne Camara, vice president for research and development at the College Board. “In some instances, it could be one minute.”

Camara said that essays on the new SAT I will be scanned into computers and graded online.

A perfect score of 800 on the SAT II writing test is not guaranteed by Chyten tutoring. But those who are willing to pay Chyten’s prices – $265 an hour for one-on-one tutoring with him or $125-$165 an hour with one of his 50 tutors – generally come from the best public and private schools in Greater Boston. Their grammar is good, and they understand sentence structure. Preparing high-scoring essays using Chyten’s method can be enough to boost scores to heart-thumping numbers.

Chyten is making a splash locally. He opened his first center in Newton in 1999 and now has four. He started with 150 students and expects 2,000 this year. Eighty-five percent of last year’s junior class at Winsor came to his center for test preparation, he said, and 800 scores on the writing test have been showing up with increasing frequency.

Winsor does not divulge test results, and college counselor Karen Andrews said she does not keep track of which students receive outside tutoring. She did say there have been a lot of 800s recently on the SAT II writing test.

“I can only answer anecdotally,” she said, “but it sure seems that way. Of course, I think Winsor’s high scores are due to the excellence of our English department, because we do teach grammar and vocabulary here.”

Chyten’s website also boasts about the high SAT scores at Belmont Hill, Roxbury Latin, and St. Sebastian, schools “where we teach test preparation.”

Does such coaching pay off? Harvard’s Fitzsimmons said he is aware of the coaching on SAT II essays, as well as college application essays and every other piece of information in the application packet. But he stressed that standardized tests are only one of many criteria sifted by his admissions committee.

“When you’re looking at people today, one has to go well beyond test scores,” Fitzsimmons said. “Obviously, grades are still critically important, and one would look at other kinds of competitions. We try to determine how unusual the person really is.”