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.
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.
Mr. Camara argues that, indeed, one key result of putting writing into the SAT, which more than 1.2 million students took at least once last year, is that high schools will stress writing much more.
"Overall, we're making changes that make the test more curriculum-related and similar to the type of teaching and learning that occurs in high school and colleges," Camara says.
In his 37-year college-teaching career, Paul Marx spent much of his time teaching freshmen how to write. He's heard all the complaints about the SAT, but likes the test as it is. He doesn't see any harm in adding a writing part, though, especially if it spurs more writing in high school.
That need was driven home to him after he retired in 2000, when he set out to help a low-income minority student prepare for the SAT. The young man was bright and eager, he says. But a key problem was a lack of reading in his home environment.
To try to fill the gap, Professor Marx moved him slowly through newspaper clippings and "The Adventures of Tom Sawyer." The idea was to broaden the student's vocabulary and reading-comprehension skills enough to do well on the verbal portion of the SAT. But he wonders if that level of assistance will be sufficient if the SAT gets tougher.
Some critics argue that the new writing portion will have a devastating impact on low-income students. Robert Schaeffer, a testing expert at Fairtest in Cambridge, Mass., says the test has a built-in bias against those whose first language is not English, a problem the new writing part will amplify.
Mr. Schaeffer disparages the change as the testing equivalent of "new Coke" essentially a lot of marketing razzle-dazzle with little substantive shift to rectify what he says are testing biases. Just as bad, he says, the test will reinforce formulaic, uninspired writing, and stifle creativity.
"This is going to be regurgitation in a different format," Schaeffer says. "This has already happened in states with essay tests; they drill the five-paragraph essay, but creativity goes out the window."
Camara denies the writing test will put a crimp on creativity.
"I don't buy it," he says. "Most writing isn't supposed to be creative. There is room for creativity. But these essays are not meant to be creative; they're meant to represent writing we do in most disciplines engineering, business, social sciences and that's not creative writing."
He and other College Board officials also acknowledge that the writing test will basically mirror the SAT II subject test for English an examination ordinarily taken only by students applying to top colleges.
Schaeffer, however, says this sort of writing test "certainly doesn't level the playing field and may tilt it further. It's not at all similar to what you do in college. You can stay up all night, use a computer spell-checker, consult a dictionary. What you can write quickly off the top of your head is a very different kind of writing."
Some have also argued that such writing is too subjective to score consistently. But Camara takes issue with that point. Two trained graders will evaluate each essay on a scale of 1 to 6 and the consistency of graders will be regularly examined. If the writing scores of the two essay graders are too divergent, a third essay grader will settle the dispute.
More test prep
Seppy Basili, vice president of precollege programs at Kaplan Inc., a test-preparation company, says the new writing portion like the rest of the test will be coachable. Practicing techniques for developing an essay quickly and cohesively will translate into higher scores, he adds.
"Students who aren't prepared will be at a distinct disadvantage," he says.
For instance, a student who already knows to take a thesis statement, grab two pieces of evidence to support it, and then organize it in a highly structured way using short sentences and proper vocabulary will do well.
On the other hand, a student who is not prepared may waste time figuring out which side of the argument to take or may try to dump in big words.
Mr. Basili also says the change may swell the ranks of anxious parents and students phoning him for pricey help to prepare for the SAT.
"What can I say?" he says. "This is definitely good for business."
The College Board is expected to approve a number of changes to the college-admissions test this week:
The verbal portion of the test is expected to be renamed "critical reading." The current analogies section will be dropped, and the portion for critical-reading passages expanded. The "sentence completion" section would be kept, one analyst says.
Quantitative comparisons will likely be eliminated from the math section. The board will add Algebra II, typically a third-year math class. (Second-year geometry is currently the highest level tested.) Basic algebra and math reasoning, which is about half the total test, will stay the same.
A new writing section would involve a 20- to 30-minute handwritten essay and a 30- to 40-minute multiple-choice portion focusing on grammar and punctuation. Each section math, critical reading, and writing, would be graded on a 200- to 800-point scale.
Here's an example from the College Board of the type of writing assignment that would appear on the test:
Below is a question that presents an issue. Read it carefully and then construct an argument explaining your position on the issue.
As you develop your argument, support your views with relevant reasons and examples from your academic studies, reading, observations, or experience. To strengthen your own position, you might wish to consider alternative or opposing views.
You will have 25 minutes to plan and compose your response. Leave a few minutes to read over what you have written and make any revisions that you think are necessary.
"Should a book, film, or musical recording be removed from a public library because it contains material that is inappropriate to some members of the community?"
1926: Introduced as the Scholastic Aptitude Test, it was an experiment designed to measure aptitude or innate mental ability.
1940s-60s: The University of California used the SAT in a limited way. Harvard University also used it to diversify its student population beyond the wealthy families who traditionally attended the school.
1967: UC made the test a requirement for admissions. Many universities soon followed suit.
1970s: The test was accused of being biased against African-Americans and Latinos. (It is also frequently accused of discriminating against women.)
1993-94: The SAT changed for the first time in 20 years. Changes included the elimination of the antonym vocabulary section and an increased emphasis on reading comprehension and math problem-solving. Calculators were allowed for the first time.
1994: The College Board, the administrator of the test, changed the name to Scholastic Assessment Test to correct the impression that it measured innate mental ability. But the new name was quickly dropped and today the acronym is the official name.
1995: The scoring system, based on a scale of 200 to 800 points for the verbal and math sections, was recalibrated. A combined score that used to be 1340, for example, would now be a 1400.
2001: UC President Richard Atkinson called for the elimination of the SAT because, he said, the test content did not reflect what students learned in school.
2002: Changes expected to be announced by the College Board this week are partly an attempt to satisfy the concerns in California, the largest "customer" for the SAT.
Source: Kaplan Inc.