SAT finally gets a third 'R' - writing

The SAT, the exam used by college admission offices for more than 70 years, is adding a third section to the verbal and math components. This new section, to be introduced next March, could be called "Raw Writing." And the course to prepare for it - let's call it Raw Writing 101 - could be taught soon in high schools near you.

It's no surprise that this writing section has finally arrived. Trustees of the College Board - which oversees the SATs - have been talking about the change for several years. And even though it's not perfect in design or delivery, it does begin to address the consistent cry from colleges that "Nobody can write anymore!"

At the same time, many teachers across the country are asking, "What do we do now to best prepare kids?" As a high school counselor and the mother of an eighth-grader, I have a vested interest in the answer.

Unlike every writing and English class I've ever been in or heard about at the high school level, the new section is not about process. Rather, it gives students the opportunity to submit a first draft without time for any revision. So, what is it testing? Quick and effective thinking on your feet (or at a desk); the ability to write concisely about a topic you've just been given; and the understanding that essay writing includes specific checkpoints, such as an introduction that states the main idea, examples that illustrate and support that idea, and a conclusion.

This approach holds weight and puts emphasis on the second of the three Rs - reading, writing, and 'rithmetic - which has been missing in standardized tests. It may not line up with the method by which many educators teach writing - which tends to focus on the process of writing and revision - but it's not all bad. It's not perfect either, but that's standardized testing.

The writing section involves the most startling change, but there are more. The verbal component, for instance, will also include multiple-choice sections on grammar and usage. In the critical reading section, shorter passages are being added to existing long ones, and students will no longer be tested on analogies. The math section will expand to include advanced algebra questions, while quantitative comparisons will be eliminated.

Many colleges are especially pleased with the writing addition. Admissions officers complain that they're tired of used, worn, and plagiarized essays, and that raw writing will give validity to the writing component of the admissions process. Most colleges plan to ask for the SAT writing section in addition to their required essay, so that students have the opportunity to present a revised piece. During a recent panel discussion at the regional College Board meeting in Boston, Don Honeman, dean of admissions at the University of Vermont, said his team would definitely require the writing section. He added, however, that they probably will not use it as an admission criterion for at least a year or two, until they better understand it and how they want to use it.

But there are some concerns. For example, does this writing section widen the gap between the haves and have-nots once again? Data suggest that the SAT is already biased. Will wealthy districts be able to incorporate academic and curriculum changes to meet students' needs while poorer districts are left behind? Those from less privileged places face formidable challenges, and this new section doesn't appear to make them any easier to overcome.

The College Board can play a significant and positive role here. If its leaders are really invested in these changes, they have a responsibility to extend themselves to those in need. The board cannot expect that all schools have the resources to send counselors and teachers to workshops in Boston, New York, or Chicago. It is imperative that it make a concerted effort to offer services and professional development opportunities to everyone equally. We need to work to level the playing field for students, not create more mountains and valleys.

High school transcripts are becoming more difficult to compare, and admissions offices are staffed with fewer - and often only moderately qualified - readers. So what's the easy out? The tests. They are easy to interpret when a home-schooler, a distance learner, a student from a new charter school, a student from a college bridge program, and another with five advanced placement (AP) classes are being compared. Now that the SATs will include a raw writing sample, a different perspective on each applicant will be offered. But I believe this could tighten the stranglehold of the College Board, because it gives more control to a single element of the required admissions criteria.

My daughter's graduating class may be the one most affected by the change. For the next two or three years, colleges will work to incorporate this new piece into their admissions puzzle. By her junior year, colleges will have worked out some of the kinks and will be more prepared to use the writing test as a real criterion. So it behooves all parents to ask schools how they are responding to these changes and what they can do to prepare students for them.

In the meantime, students should keep reading books, writing essays, and solving math problems.

Laura Frey is director of college counseling at Vermont Academy and a former president of the New England Association for College Admission Counseling.

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