The SAT Essay
NPR.org, March 9, 2005 · The SAT has been adapted many times in its 79-year history, but rarely with the hype and anxiety that accompanies the revision that debuts Saturday, March 12, 2005. The venerable college entrance exam will feature a new scoring system, a longer format and advanced algebra -- and the puzzling analogy section will be gone. But it is the 25-minute essay question that has students, parents and college admissions boards abuzz.
'A Great, Big Wake Up Call to the Public'
The public schools indeed do a very pitiful job of teaching writing skills. It is sad, because writing one's thoughts out and organizing them is a means of learning at a level that cannot be achieved by just reading and thinking, alone. Everyone knows the reasons why schools don't teach writing anymore. It takes too much time and money. The question is, what to do about it? Making writing an important component of the competitive college admissions process is probably the only answer, so it is a great thing no matter how unfair it is. When students' lack of writing ability begins to affect their potential to receive the higher education they, and their parents for them, aspire to, there is going to be a lot of pressure from parents to change the system. The change will be very painful for the schools, and the public. And, it will take a very long time, of course. So, then, let's get started. The SAT writing test is going to be a great, big wake up call to the public. It is just what we have been needing for a very long time.
'Grueling Cattle Prods for Schools'
As a high school English teacher in Michigan, the SAT, ACT, MEAP and various other standardized tests have an impact on my students and my teaching. Bob Schaeffer's essay, "SAT: A Cynical Marketing Ploy," hits on the all-important money issue but is too narrow in scope. While the SAT generates money for some, I see politicians on Capitol Hill using standardized testing as an exploitative, money-saving ploy. Instead of putting money where it would do the most good (reducing classroom sizes, training and compensating excellent teachers, etc.), politicians employ cheaper standardized tests as tools to make themselves look good and as grueling cattle prods for schools already under a multitude of growing pressures.
'A Writing Section Would Have Improved My Score'
Last year, when I was a senior in high school, there weren't many three-letter acronyms that could evoke more four-letter words than SAT. It's interesting to find that my graduating class (2004) was the last class subjected to the previous version. I remember spending many hours studying the analogies for the verbal section. I think the inclusion of a writing section would have greatly improved my score. I also think it will force teachers to teach students more about skills they will actually need in college. I'm a college freshman now and I haven't been asked about any analogies yet. Writing essays is a critical skill that I will continue to use very often.
ACT: 'Informed by Actual High School Material'
What if everyone stopped taking the SAT, and turned instead to the ACT? While this doesn't address the underlying and ultimate questions about standardized testing, it does at least give students the chance to work on a test that is informed by actual high school course material, and has a more humane scoring rubrik. All the colleges we've researched, including all the "name-brand" schools, accept the ACT without question -- like Yale, Barnard, etc, they will accept the ACT -- or, the SAT I and 3 SAT II's --and yet, given that choice, students still choose the SAT route? What kind of intelligence does that show? And how about the media turning their attention to this "other" test -- the ACT -- rather than continuing to feed in to this SAT hysteria?
'Get Real, Get It International'
This is as unfortunate as the No Child Left Behind act is in testing children in English only -- not at all in their native language. None of the test scores make any consideration for it being in one's second language. We all know a student taking these SAT exams may be a fabulous writer in their native language but not so in English. Get real, get it international, allow it to be multi-lingual and you may have something!
'Communities Can Help'
It is possible to prepare high school students for the SAT writing test. Here in Missoula, Montana, we have a program that provides writing coaches from the community to any teacher who requests our help. We work one-on-one with all students in the classroom. Our coaches write for a living; most have graduate degrees. They range from the former publisher of the local paper, to attorneys, to an NPR reporter. Teachers can't do it all-- communities can help.