Save the SAT Writing Test
Princeton and Stanford last week became the latest schools to drop the SAT essay requirement. The College Board made the section optional in 2016. Skeptics will applaud this essay’s demise as a return to a test that measures real aptitude. But the essay, introduced in 2005, turned out to be useful. Ditching it is another plan by colleges to make all standards of admissions subjective and easily rigged.
The writing test began in 2005 in order “to improve the validity of the test for predicting college success,” according to the College Board. A pilot program found that “scores on the new SAT writing section were slightly better than high school grades in predicting first-year college grades.”
There were problems with the exam. One MIT professor found students were rewarded for sheer length. Another criticism was that it wasn’t graded on accuracy. Students could make factual errors, or make things up.
In 2014 the College Board revised the essay test, asking students to read a passage and then answer a question with a persuasive argument using evidence from the text. Test-takers, their parents and guidance counselors criticized this new approach as well. There was too little time. It stressed students out. It raised the cost of preparation and of the test itself.
Princeton cited cost as its reason for eliminating the exam. But taking the essay part of the test adds only $14 to the registration fee, and poor kids can get waivers.
It is true that 25 minutes is not much time to write an essay, but one can discern a few things about a student’s command of grammar, vocabulary and logic from three paragraphs. True, grading a writing test is more subjective than scoring a multiple-choice test. But writing is a real skill, and colleges should measure it.
How will schools discern a student’s writing ability now? Primarily through application essays or papers graded by high school teachers. In other words, the applicants who get help from adults at home and at school will have the advantage. Parents, teachers or counselors can suggest themes that will appeal to admissions officers (hardship, discrimination, fighting for social justice), advise on writing structure and vocabulary, and proofread final submissions.
This kind of coddling continues in college, where students are encouraged to make use of campus writing tutors and then expect professors to let them submit multiple drafts and get feedback before incurring a real grade. Result: According to a 2016 survey released by PayScale, 44% of managers think “writing proficiency is the hard skill lacking the most among recent college graduates.”
If colleges really wanted to reduce applicants’ stress and stop wasting time and money, they might ask students to submit the SAT writing section instead of an application essay. Forget about the College Board; send the essay to the school’s freshman composition teachers for grading. That would put everyone on more equal footing and tell colleges something useful about their applicants.
Ms. Riley is a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a senior fellow at the Independent Women’s Forum.