Twenty-five minutes may not seem like much time to ponder a provocative passage about human nature and to draft an essay outlining one’s views on a related philosophical question, especially early on a Saturday morning. But high school students taking part in the ritual of the nation’s most- used college-entrance exam will have to do just that, beginning in March.
As they gear up for the new SAT, teachers are finding ways to incorporate more writing instruction into their lessons and to coach students in formulating quick, succinct, and organized responses to the kinds of questions they may confront in the new writing section.
“I think it will impact the curriculum in a good way, because it will put more of a focus on writing, particularly expository writing,” Carol Jago, an English teacher at Santa Monica High School in California, said of the addition to the exam.
“I also hope that it will encourage more writing across the curriculum,” said Ms. Jago, who has written several books on teaching.
The College Board, which sponsors the SAT, introduced the essay question to do exactly that. The writing section, which includes the timed essay and multiple-choice grammar and editing questions, will be scored on a scale of 200 to 800 points and count for one-third of the total score on the revised exam. A commission on writing convened by the New York City-based organization recommended in a 2003 report that schools spend more time and resources on writing instruction.
The writing portion adds a third component to the test. Until now, it has been divided into a mathematics section and a verbal section, which tests students on reading comprehension, sentence completion, and word analogies. A critical-reading section and a math section make up the rest of the new, 2400-point SAT. Word analogies, a mainstay of the test, have been eliminated.
Finding the Formula
While experts generally agree that the writing exercise will raise the profile for writing instruction in the high school curriculum, some worry that it will lead more teachers to adapt or reduce their instruction to a formula for success on the exams.
“If more writing of any kind is better than not writing, then the changes are a good thing,” said Randy Bomer, the president of the National Council of Teachers of English, which is based in Urbana, Ill. “The danger, of course, is that, as with most tests, people will come to believe rightly or wrongly that there is a single formula for getting a top score” and spend the bulk of their instruction on that genre.
Such a formula is likely to tend toward the “five-paragraph essay” favored by many state writing tests. Such essays include an introductory paragraph with a topical or thesis statement, three supporting paragraphs, and a concluding statement.
That format, contends Mr. Bomer, an assistant professor of language and literacy studies at the University of Texas at Austin, fails to foster creativity or innovation in writing.
But College Board officials say that teaching structured writing can help students become more creative writers.
“To teach a certain kind of structured writing can be true instruction,” said Chiara Coletti, a spokeswoman for the New York City-based board. “If you look at the scoring guide for the new SAT, you see that style is rewarded, logic is rewarded.”
While Ms. Coletti says that students cannot necessarily prepare for the writing portion of the test, teachers are building exercises into their lessons to familiarize students with the format and help them complete the task within the time constraints.
Peggy Kittle, who teaches essay writing at Kennett High School in Conway, N.H., has her students practice what she calls “the test-taking genre” because it is unlike the other writing tasks that dominate the course.
“Trying to compose something in such a limited time frame means you can’t use elements of the writing process that we typically do,” Ms. Kittle said via e-mail. There’s not “enough time to mine their journal for ideas or entries, consider options for a lead, do much pre-planning at all. … So we’ve practiced getting off the mark quickly and writing for 4-5 minute bursts.”
Such exercises irk some proponents of increased academic writing in schools. Formulaic lessons, they argue, do little to prepare students for the kinds of assignments they will encounter in college and the workforce.
“On the one hand, [the writing section] probably will lead to an increase in writing, but my feeling is the number of kids needing remedial writing will not go down,” said Will Fitzhugh, the editor of the Concord Review, which publishes extended history-research papers written by high school students. “Writing your opinions or about yourself does not prepare you to write a report for your boss, much less a college paper.”
The Writing Reality
The essay questions for the new SAT do appear to call more for introspection than intellect. The samples offered by the College Board suggest students will likely be asked to read an excerpt from literature or a prominent work of nonfiction and outline their views on an issue raised by the piece. They could be asked to draw on their knowledge of history, current events, and other subject matter to back up their position. (See box, this page.)
The purpose, Ms. Coletti said, is simply to test students’ ability to write a first draft, drawing on what they know and what they think.
While the test may not provide the ideal mechanism for gauging students’ writing ability, teachers have to accept the realities of testing and prepare students for it, according to Anne Ruggles Gere, a co-author of Writing on Demand: Best Practices and Strategies for Success, a book due out from Heinemann this month.
“The challenge for writing teachers,” Ms. Gere, a professor of English and education at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, said in an e-mail, “is to support students without selling out, without abandoning best practices in favor of test preparation.”
A version of this article appeared in the February 02, 2005 edition of Education Week as Educators Hope SAT’s New Essay Will Bolster Writing in Schools