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Published in Print: May 11, 2005, as NCTE Is Critical of New College-Admissions Essay Tests

NCTE Is Critical of New College-Admissions Essay Tests

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English teachers have taken their red pens to the new SAT and ACT writing tests, and they have some critical words not for the student writers but for the test-makers.

The National Council of Teachers of English says the writing tests on the college-entrance exams are unlikely to improve the teaching of writing in schools and could tip the balance against students in poorer school districts.

Robert P. Yagelski, an associate professor of English at the State University of New York at Albany and the chairman of the seven-member NCTE task force that prepared the report, said the SAT essay, one of two components in the new writing test, “dramatically narrows” the scope of writing for students.

“If you look at an SAT prompt, it is a very narrow form of academic writing, and just a small part of a wide repertoire of writing skills that a student will need to be successful in college,” he said. It is unfair, he added, to use such a question in a test as crucial to a student’s future as the SAT.

“Students who are in low-performing school districts … will end up having to focus on specific skills they need to do well in tests.” he said.

The report comes nearly two months after 304,000 students became the first to take the College Board’s SAT writing test. ("SAT’s Next Chapter About to Be Written," Feb. 2, 2005.)

A College Board spokeswoman criticized the report, saying it was prepared mostly by college English teachers and is not representative of the views of the majority of the NCTE’s membership. The Urbana, Ill.-based NCTE has 60,000 members, of whom nearly 80 percent are K-12 teachers, a spokeswoman said.

“The overall purpose of adding a writing test was to elevate the importance of writing in a classroom and focus on teachers who want to teach writing,” said Chiara Coletti, the spokeswoman for the New York City-based sponsor of the SAT.

What Is Good Writing?

Cathy Welch, an assistant vice president at the Iowa City, Iowa-based ACT, said the ACT’s 30-minute optional essay question, added in February, “is relevant to college learning.”

“It is a test of persuasive writing, which is very important to college success,” she said.

The May 3 report says that the new tests correctly promote the idea that strong writing skills are essential for success in college and beyond. But the timed essay, it says, could promote formulaic writing by students. For example, the report says, sample essays on the College Board Web site “define ‘good’ writing as essentially ‘correct’ writing that is focused on conventional truisms and platitudes about life.”

The report says studies of other writing tests, including some by the College Board, have found that they have a minimal impact in improving students’ writing abilities. The “short, impromptu, holistically scored essay,” it says, also fails to be a predictor of college performance, including first-year course grades, writing performance, or retention.

Ms. Coletti said that the College Board’s own field studies on essay tests have shown a “strong co-relationship between scores on the test and college performance.”

“One of the primary reasons we introduced the essay was to call the attention of educators to the importance of writing and teaching writing,” she said. “College educators among our members were encouraging us to do this since 1990.”

Vol. 24, Issue 36, Page 5

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