Colleges Hesitate to Embrace SAT Writing Test

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Three months after the debut of the SAT writing test, some colleges are expressing concerns about its validity, and many have decided not to require the scores, at least for the time being.

So far, over 400 of the nation’s colleges and universities have said they will require an admissions exam that requires a writing test such as the one in the SAT, according to the College Board, which sponsors the test. They include Ivy League colleges like Columbia and Yale universities, and elite public institutions such as the University of California system.

Independent Study

Some colleges have either adopted a policy making the submission of SAT scores optional or will not consider the results of the SAT writing test in admissions:

Bates College
Lewiston, Maine

In 1984, became one of the first colleges to make submission of SAT scores optional

Mount Holyoke College
South Hadley, Mass.

In fourth year of five-year experiment making SAT scores optional

Lawrence University
Appleton, Wis.

Made SAT optional in February, after the introduction of the writing test

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Cambridge, Mass.

Will not consider SAT writing-test score for fall 2006 admissions, pending study

Georgetown University

Will not consider SAT writing test score for admissions decisions

Among the institutions that will not consider SAT writing scores, at least not for the next admissions cycle, are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Georgetown University.

Some schools, meanwhile, such as the liberal arts College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Mass., St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., and Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis., have in recent months chosen to drop their requirements for one of the college-admissions tests altogether.

They join more than 700 others that already do not require applicants to submit SAT or ACT scores, according to the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest, a Cambridge, Mass.-based group that has long criticized standardized testing.

MIT will not consider writing scores for the fall 2006 admissions class and will take them into account the following year only after a campus panel of experts reviews the test and ensures its validity, said Les Perelman, the university’s director of undergraduate writing.

Essay ‘Hysteria’?

The revised SAT, which was administered for the first time in March, includes a 25-minute essay and 49 multiple-choice questions that require students to improve sentences and identify errors ("Educators Hope SAT’s New Essay Will Bolster Writing in Schools," Feb. 2, 2005.)

Mr. Perelman, who studied more than 50 sample SAT essays, said he believes the new section does not allow time for students to plan and revise their essays and is therefore not a realistic test of their writing ability.

“Editing and revision are very important for writers,” he said. “We know that the difference between professional writers and novice writers, the single most important characteristic that differentiates them, is the extent of the substantial revision they make on essays.”

Mr. Perelman added that he was also concerned that the College Board, the New York City-based organization that sponsors the SAT, advises scorers to overlook factual errors in essays.

“Their justification for that is that this is a test on writing and not a test on information,” he said. “I personally think you can’t separate the two.”

Caren Scoropanos, a spokeswoman for the College Board, said that scorers were instructed to read all essays “holistically” and were indeed asked to disregard minor factual errors in an otherwise excellent essay. But glaring errors that affect the conclusion in an essay would have an impact on the overall score, she said.

A report last month from the National Council of Teachers of English said the SAT writing test, which is mandatory for those taking the exam, and the ACT’s optional writing test are unlikely to improve the teaching of writing in schools and could make it harder for students in poorer school districts to get into college. ("NCTE Is Critical of New College-Admissions Essay Tests," May 11, 2005.)

Administrators at Holy Cross said that although they have long discussed making the submission of SAT scores optional, the “panic” among parents and students over the writing test was the final straw.

Ann McDermott, the admissions director, said the college had often admitted students with low scores on the basis of other criteria, but the introduction of the writing test provided the spur for a re-examination.

“We felt like there was so much hysteria and distraction that this was a good time” to drop the entrance test as a requirement, she said.

Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of FairTest, said that the introduction of the writing test has caused a number of colleges to review their admissions policies. “It was a tipping point,” he said, adding that his group expected announcements soon from other colleges that would make the test optional.

‘Strong Acceptance’

While FairTest says that 700 or more out of some 2,500 four-year institutions have made standardized admissions testing, including the SAT and the ACT, optional, Ms. Scoropanos of the College Board said officials there believe that the number is much smaller. According to the College Board, 1,424 four-year colleges require all applicants to submit standardized-test scores.

The College Board has also put out a list of just over 400 colleges that have decided to take the writing test into consideration in the next admissions cycle, including the University of California system and Rice University in Houston.

Ms. Scoropanos said that number is based just on colleges that have informed the College Board, and that the total number of institutions requiring the writing test could be much larger.

She said that while there is a need to “critically evaluate” any admissions tool, colleges have generally shown strong acceptance of the SAT writing test.

She added that colleges were planning to use the test for a range of purposes, from authenticating student writing abilities to determining scholarships and the need for remedial classes.

Ann Wright, the vice president of undergraduate admissions at Rice, said that the university would compare students’ SAT essays with their admissions essays.

“We want to know how a student performs in a proctored environment,” she said. “That is quite a different process than writing it six times at home and having someone else look over it. We think we will find that very useful.”

Ms. Wright, who was a member of the College Board when the organization added the writing test, said the criticism of the writing test was premature.

“I think that we need to look at the test and the results before making a judgment,” she said. “My own feeling is if students learn to write a short essay, then that’s a good thing rather than a negative.”

Testing the Test

The University of California system will also take scores on the SAT writing test into account for its fall 2006 admissions class, said Michael T. Brown, the president of the institution’s Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools.

However, whether the writing test provides any real measure of student ability remains a big question, he said. The university will take at least another year to determine whether the writing test is aligned with its needs, but the fact that other institutions are opting out of its use is telling, he added.

The University of California set off the revamp of the SAT when its then-president, Richard Atkinson, in 2001 proposed dropping the test as an admissions requirement because, he said, it did not emphasize what was taught in the high school curriculum. He also recommended that SAT-takers be asked to produce a writing sample.

While a writing test is desirable, Mr. Brown said, it remains to be seen whether the writing portions of the college-admissions exams are “sending the appropriate signal in terms of the kind of writing we are interested in.”

Vol. 24, Issue 39, Page 5

Published in Print: June 8, 2005, as Colleges Hesitate to Embrace SAT Writing Test
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