SAT: Writing, Yes; Test Essay, Maybe

Bruce J. Poch is the dean of admissions at Pomona College in Claremont, Calif.

What, no Verbal? What's Critical Reading? Writing? An essay? Who writes anything today without a keyboard, let alone with a No. 2 pencil?

High school students are not alone in asking these questions as they face the revamped 2005 SAT. College admissions deans like myself are also puzzling over the meaning of the exam's new writing component.

I am a firm believer that good writing is critical to success and that colleges must make clearer the value they place on this skill. A writing component to the SAT may be one way to achieve that, but the instant impact of this new test has me leery.

First, I am skeptical that the SAT writing exercise will be a good test of ability. The test, after all, measures a first draft, not a polished piece of work. Good writing is not simply the ability to compose on the fly, but also the critical ability to revise and perfect what you've written.

A bigger worry is that the test will place students from large public schools and underfunded schools at a serious disadvantage compared to students from more upscale environments. Teachers who have six or seven classes each day, with 35 to 40 students in each, aren't likely to assign much writing. Even if they do, the grading is likely to be little more than a letter grade. Helping a student become a better writer requires extensive critical comment on each submitted piece.

Having attended a poorly funded inner-city high school myself, I know what barriers to success feel like. In high school, I was told I was a good writer, but my first college paper came back with so much red ink that I feared that the professor had bled to death on the pages. I was lucky to be at a small college where the professor could take the time to sit down with me and help me find a more articulate voice.

State educational budget crises only aggravate the situation. Writing is an acquired skill. Yet, here in the public schools of Los Angeles, as in most urban areas, there's little advocacy from school leaders — much less financial support — for an intensive writing program. If some measures aren't taken to improve writing in the L.A. schools, students in this enormously strained system will be left behind.

The short-term result of this new test may be to amplify the preparation gap that already separates the educational "haves" from the educational "have-nots" in America. Eventually, perhaps, the test will force schools to take a harder look at the way they teach writing, but such changes take time. In the meantime, the quick release of the new test is another threat to the College Board moniker of "Equity and Access for All Students."

Another serious concern is that the results of these new tests are ripe for misuse. Colleges should read more generously essays from students with fewer educational opportunities behind them, but competitive pressure may prevent that. My work with a group of admissions directors and deans who meet with U.S. News & World Report on its rankings of American colleges suggests they are planning to use the writing test scores in their ranking this year.

It would be unfortunate indeed if this test should prove to be a disincentive for the nation's most selective and financially well-endowed institutions to enroll those students who are most underrepresented — students from lower-income families.

At Pomona, we plan to do a couple of things with the new test. One will be to download the actual essay so that we may read it with a mind to applying our own standards to the work. Only after that reading will we look at the score assigned by the College Board. If their view is consistent with ours, confidence will be built. If not… well, I may write another editorial.

We also will have the chance to lay it side by side with the presumably more polished application essay. We expect there should be a similar voice. Where there is no apparent connection, we may question the ultimate authorship of the application essays.

For all my concerns about the rollout of the new exam, in the end, I am glad writing is being encouraged. If schools take this as a carrot to work with students to develop critical writing skills, the new SAT will be a success. But if it turns out to be a stick to further beat down underrepresented students, and those from underfunded, overpopulated schools, it will be a serious problem.

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