Tuesday, March 11, 2014

The new SAT: the Essay

This is the third post in a series on the redesigned SAT.  The first two were on vocabulary and the math section, respectively.

It was interesting to see what the news media chose to focus on when they did their bullet points for the redesigned SAT.  As headlines and/or sound-bites, many chose variations on “The new SAT will drop the essay requirement!”  That they would trumpet this particular change is understandable.  The SAT essay has been widely loathed since it was first introduced in 2005.

Criticisms of the 25-minute essay section abound:  Writing a coherent essay in such a short period of time on a random prompt that was sprung on you at the last second is a very artificial task.  How often does that come up?  Even college blue-book exams – the closest real-world situation - will have essay questions specifically on the course material.  And don’t get people started on how they are scored.  Anecdotes abound about how kids who can afford coaches are at an enormous advantage because coaches teach you how to use really bad writing to get a top score.  Dropping the essay requirement was popular and a good marketing move.

However, "drop the essay requirement" may be misleading.  The SAT still has an essay.  However, now the style of essay has changed and it is "optional."  Changing the style of the essay is a good move. The new style is much more the kind of writing that you might expect to do in the workplace:  Take this data and write a quick position summary.  ETS has already test-driven this essay style on the GRE, so they should be able to implement it on the SAT with few hiccups.

As far as being "optional" goes, the more selective colleges will "require" it, just as they now "require" the "optional" ACT essay.

While it is true that the method of scoring the essay has always had issues - and likely still will - there are two points to consider here:  First, American kids need to be writing more and when you include essays in assessments, the curriculum will include more writing instruction.  Second, colleges have always been able to read a student's actual essay.  They don't have to rely on the score as a measure of an essay's quality.  In fact, the essay score has always had only a slight impact on the students Writing component score in addition to being reported as a separate score.  Many colleges disregard the entire Writing component score altogether while others downplay it.  Yet, they have required the essay anyway. Keep in mind that this will probably be the only sample of writing accessible to the admissions committee that is guaranteed to have been written by the applicant.  Admissions officers all claim they can spot an adult-written essay from a mile off, but can they really?  And what is to prevent a student from paying his classmate to write a better essay?

So the essay is still there and those applying to selective colleges are stuck with it.  However, the task should be a better example of a real-world writing situation, and practicing for it may pay off even after the SAT is over.

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