Keep the SAT Essay

Madison Iszler

This March, the new SAT will debut. The sweeping changes to it include a return to a 1600-point grading scale; the elimination of a penalty for wrong answers (previously minus ¼ point each); and the removal of “SAT words,” though the new test will still test students’ vocabulary. The test will now combine the reading and writing parts into one section.

Perhaps the greatest and most unfortunate change is that the essay is now optional. Previously, each test-taker had 25 minutes to write an essay on a given prompt. The prompt tended to be broad and subjective. The December 2015 SAT essay, for example, asked students, “Is it dangerous to look up to role models and heroes?” because they may fail or betray their admirers’ trust. Students were told to structure an essay “in which you develop your point of view on this issue,” using logical reasoning and evidence gathered from their “reading, studies, experience, or observations.”

The new essay is optional and graded separately from the other two sections, scored on a scale from 1 to 4 points in three categories (Reading, Analysis, and Writing). The time limit has doubled (from 25 minutes to 50), and so has the available writing space (from two pages to four). Instead of a prompt with questions, students will be given a passage to read and analyze. After reading the given passage, they are to “explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience” and defend their explanations “with evidence from the passage.” One practice test for the new SAT prompts the essay-writer to evaluate the language Jimmy Carter uses to convince his readers that we should not drill for oil in the Arctic Refuge coastal plains in Alaska. Students are not supposed to take a position agreeing or disagreeing with Carter, but simply to explain his rhetoric.

According to the College Board, changing the test and sidelining the essay is important to keep the test “relevant” to college and career life: “One of our biggest goals in changing the SAT is to make sure it’s highly relevant to your future success. The new test will be more focused on the skills and knowledge at the heart of education.” The new SAT “will focus on the knowledge and skills that current research shows are most essential for college and career readiness and success.” The test aims to “measure what you learn in high school” and “what you need to succeed in college.”

The College Board used similar language back in 2002 when it announced that it would add an essay to the SAT in 2005. The University of California was the primary force behind the change – in 2001, the school threatened that the state would drop its SAT requirement, “saying that fewer freshmen were prepared for the more intense writing requirements of college,” according to NBC News. UC President Richard C. Atkinson said in a 2001 speech that he did not think the SAT assessed what students in California were taught in school and suggested that UC should “require only standardized tests that assess mastery of specific subject areas rather than undefined notions of ‘aptitude’ or ‘intelligence,’” according to the Los Angeles Times. Caren Scoropanos, a spokesperson for the College Board, told NBC News that the decision to add the essay was made so that “writing will become more of a priority across the United States."

Despite calls for change, the SAT essay component received significant criticism when it was first added, and today many colleges have chosen not to require the essay for applications. A recent survey by Kaplan Test Prep found that of 300 colleges and universities surveyed, only 13 percent required the essay. Two-thirds of those surveyed chose to remain neutral. In July, the University of Pennsylvania announced that it would not require the essay portions of the SAT or ACT for its admissions process. Cornell and Columbia, among other top schools, also opted to not require the essay. Even at the University of California, which had pushed for the writing component, the admissions department has said it does not use the essay to evaluate applicants. “It’s not used in any step of the process,” Susan Wilbur, director of undergraduate admissions, told the Times.

While the number of colleges deciding not to use the essay portion continues to rise, it seems clear that in principle the essay ought to be helpful for both admissions staff and students. The ability to write cannot be measured through a series of multiple-choice questions. In that format students can increase their chances by weeding out some of the wrong answers (and now that there is no penalty for choosing incorrectly, even guessing is a viable option), but when confronted with a blank page they must start from square one.

Writing is a crucial part of the collegiate experience, as the College Board acknowledges. College students write personal essays, research papers, and senior theses, and these assignments make up a significant portion of their grades. Making the SAT optional means that unless colleges start independently testing students’ writing, some colleges will admit students without gauging their writing abilities.

Writing well is a good indicator of other skills. Students who can write carefully argued essays are also thoughtful and observant readers. They pay attention to grammar, vocabulary, tone, and style. Practicing such attention will serve them well in their careers and throughout their lives.

The College Board claims to recognize the importance of writing: “The College Board remains steadfast in its commitment to the importance of analytical writing for all students. The SAT Essay has been reimagined to closely reflect the analytical writing that will be required of students throughout their college experience.” But if the essay is optional, how strongly committed can the College Board be?

The College Board’s clearest rationale for this change is that “While the writing work that students do in the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the exam is strongly predictive of college and career readiness and success, one single essay historically has not contributed significantly to the overall predictive power of the exam.” Additionally, “Feedback from hundreds of member admission officers was divided: Some of them found the current essay useful, but many did not.”

Perhaps the prior essay structure – with less time, less space, and a more open-ended prompt – curbed the exam’s predictive power. Critics said the essay was too subjective and personal. Students could lie or misremember facts used as evidence. In “The SAT Upgrade Is a Big Mistake,” NAS president Peter Wood wrote that the essay was “a decade-long experiment in awarding points for sloppy writing graded by mindless formulae.”

But the newly designed essay would fix some of the old essay’s problems. It requires students to analyze and make evidence-based arguments. The requirements are more stringent and students are given a narrower focus – the passage – rather than an overbroad, loose prompt followed by questions.

Well-structured and analytical writing is an important part of college, and removing the SAT essay requirement does not seem to help students or colleges in measuring a student’s academic aptitude.

Photo Credit: The College Matchmaker

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