A new look for SATs
a) improve students' writingb) put certain groups at a disadvantage c) make more money for test-prep firmsd) all of the above
When it comes to testing student readiness for college, writing has long taken a back seat to filling in bubbles. But multiple-choice devotees had better gird themselves: Writing is coming to the SAT.Skip to next paragraph
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The SAT may seem an immutable icon on America's educational landscape. Yet the venerable college-admissions test has had a major overhaul every decade or so most recently in 1994. And the next tectonic shift is slated for Thursday.
That's when the College Board, which owns the test, is expected to unveil a raft of changes. But the most talked-about alteration, without question, is the writing section.
The idea is to gauge a student's ability to develop a well-constructed written argument on the fly. Starting in 2005, students will find themselves with a blank sheet and 25 minutes to respond in their own stiff, sterling, or scattershot prose to such statements as, "Novelty is too often mistaken for progress." And college-admissions officers will be able courtesy of the College Board's likely move to place the essays on a website to see what students are capable of writing without any coaching.
The shift was spurred by a threat that the University of California system, the test's largest client, would drop the SAT as an admissions requirement. UC President Richard Atkinson, like other critics, has voiced concerns that the SAT doesn't mirror high school curriculum and may give an advantage to wealthier groups. Beyond that, it offers no sense of students' ability to write clearly an essential skill that many professors say is lacking in a broad range of students.
Not only will the proposed change offer a better assessment of writing ability, proponents say, but the sample will give admissions officers a powerful new tool as they review applications that often resemble carefully packaged annual reports.
Carla Ferri, the UC system's director of undergraduate admission, says the changes are positive.
"The regents said they liked very much the proposals that the College Board and the ACT [another testing organization] put forward," she comments. "Writing, for the faculty, is very important in all disciplines. Our freshmen are supposed to be able to comprehend the text and write about it. It's essential."
To Wayne Camara, vice president of research at the College Board, adding a writing section to the SAT is all about responding to the times. "Employers are saying high school and college grads lack proficiency in writing clearly," he says. "Higher education is worried about that. It's been a huge concern that we've heard loudly and clearly."
Though the SAT has been around since 1926, it gained its central place in the admissions process only in the 1960s. Many admissions officers say it is invaluable in cutting through grade inflation and providing a level base for evaluating students from different states and school districts.
But opponents have complained the test is too biased, too "coachable," and prone to screening out lower-income and minority students who cannot afford expensive test preparation. And a small but growing number of elite schools have argued that the SAT is not that "predictive" of student success in college. About 280 of the country's 2,083 four-year universities and colleges make the test optional.
"Why are more tests the right step?" asks William Hiss, vice president for external and alumni affairs and a former dean of admissions at Bates College in Lewiston, Maine. His school does not require the SAT. "The test simply does not reflect the academic promise of a significant minority of students."
But the College Board's proposal to make copies of students' test essays available on the World Wide Web allowing schools to compare them with the admissions essays may prove attractive to many institutions. And the new mandate could, of course, result in more students entering college with better writing skills if their schools focus on preparing them better in that area.