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An Insider's Quick Lesson on How to Ace the New SAT

Essay section doesn't deserve the critics' wrath.

August 17, 2004|Michael A. Cappeto

Beginning in March, when thousands of high school students nationwide sit for the SAT, the test they take will be markedly different from previous versions of the test.

The new SAT will feature Algebra II class material and a writing section that includes an essay component. These are enhancements of the current SAT, and they have been added to the test in response to the increasing number of high schools nationwide placing a greater importance on mathematics, as well as a call for improved writing in high school, college and beyond.

The essay portion of the new test has been targeted by critics -- among them those who stand to profit from "teaching the test." Their idea is that asking students to articulate a position in writing in 25 minutes will be an empty exercise.

Allow me to set the record straight.

The College Board is adding the essay portion to the SAT because educators nationwide have told us that writing is critically important to college success. The new test, which has been well received by secondary and post-secondary educators, aligns with college professors' expectations of the incoming freshmen class, and it will accurately measure a student's ability to reason in three critical areas -- reading, mathematics and writing.

The format of the test, which calls for a student to answer multiple-choice questions about writing as well as compose an essay about a topic in 25 minutes, derives from the board's long history of testing writing. We've been measuring this skill for decades, and in 2003 alone the College Board administered and scored more than 300,000 writing tests in the specialized SATs known as the SAT IIs.

That experience also bears on the process of scoring essays. A comprehensive set of scoring guidelines and rigorous checks and balances have been put into place to ensure consistency and fairness. Two scorers will review each essay; an experienced third reviewer will be called upon if scores differ by more than one point. Additionally, a supervisor monitors the original scoring in real time online to further ensure quality control. More than 6,000 qualified educators -- English teachers or professors, 80% with master's or doctorate degrees, who have taught in the last four years -- have answered our call to score the student-written essays.

What does that mean for students taking the test? Despite claims to the contrary, they can rest assured that scorers will view their work as essentially a rough draft. In fact, scorers are trained to reward students for what they have written well and to overlook simple spelling, grammar and punctuation errors. Length isn't important; a writer's clarity of thought, sentence structure and skillful use of language, among other criteria, are important. In brief, the essays will be assessed "holistically."

How should students prepare? Just as with previous versions of the SAT, the College Board believes that the best thing students can do to prepare for the exam is to work hard in their high school classes, complete challenging assignments and read extensively. There are free sample tests available from the College Board website as well.

Changes in the SATs aren't something to fear or to "game" -- they're only to be expected. Any test that seeks to measure how well generations of students can reason through critical reading, math and writing must evolve, or it will no longer accurately predict a student's success in college, as the SAT has done for decades.

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Michael A. Cappeto is the vice president for higher education assessment programs for the College Board.

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