Failing Grade

The new writing tests on the SAT and ACT are educationally unsound, according to the National Council of Teachers of English.
May 4, 2005

The new writing tests that have been added to both the SAT and the ACT:
A.    Are unlikely to predict success in college writing.
B.    Will send high school writing instruction in the wrong direction.
C.    Reward those who write “conventional truisms and platitudes about life.”
D.    All of the above.

According to the National Council of Teachers of English, the answer is D. The council released an analysis of the new writing tests Tuesday, and it found little to like and much to dislike.

The writing tests were introduced this year following years of criticism that the standardized tests used by many competitive colleges ignored the importance of writing. The College Board made the writing test a required part of the SAT and instituted a new scoring system, first used on the administration of the SAT given in March. The writing component is optional on the ACT.

The emphasis of the new report is on the SAT, although the authors of the report – a panel of seven that included six college professors – said that they believed most of the concerns applied equally to both tests.

Much of the criticism relates to the format of the essay test, in which students have 25 minutes to produce an answer to a question. In March, the question related to the idea of majority rule. That kind of exercise is quite different, the report notes, from what college professors expect of students.

"The kind of writing skill required to do well on short, timed essay tests has little instructional validity," the report says. "Given only 25 minutes to write the SAT essay (30 minutes for the ACT essay), students will likely produce a kind of writing that is necessarily formulaic and superficial -- writing that is very different from the lengthier, in-depth, and complex writing expected by most college instructors."

As a result, the report says, the writing test will end up telling colleges very little about how well students can perform in college.

The danger posed by the new test, the report warns, is much greater than just wasting the time of the students who take it (and the money of those who prepare for it with test-prep services). High school writing instruction is likely to be shifted away from sound techniques to align with the new test.

"The kind of writing required for success on the timed essay component of the SAT is likely to encourage writing instruction that emphasizes formulaic writing with specific but limited textual features," the report says. "The sample prompts provided by the College Board include writing tasks that are generally decontextualized and artificial, with no reference to the crucial rhetorical matters of audience and purpose.

"Students are provided topics about which they may have little or no knowledge (or interest), yet they are instructed to 'support your reasoning with examples taken from  your reading, studies, experience, or observations.' Teachers wishing to help students prepare for such writing tasks will necessarily provide students with strategies focused on the specific textual features identified by the College Board’s promotional materials as important. Careful, in-depth inquiry into a topic, attention to stylistic or structural features that may be suitable for specific audiences or rhetorical situations, creativity and innovation – all of these important components of effective writing are likely to be implicitly or explicitly discouraged  by teachers will understandably be concerned about helping students manage the required writing tasks in the short allotted time."

Officials of both the College Board and ACT strongly disputed the assertions of the report.

Chiara Coletti, a spokeswoman for the College Board, said she wouldn't even call the report representative of the English teachers' association. She noted that many members of the group are involved in College Board committees related to the SAT and not only support, but have helped to develop, the writing test.

Coletti said that the College Board has never claimed that the writing test is capable of testing skills in creative writing or producing a research paper. But she said that the new writing test is valuable for what it does do -- give colleges a way to compare the writing skills of students nationally.

She also rejected the idea that the test will hurt existing writing instruction in high schools. She noted recent studies that suggest that most high schools don't do a good job of teaching writing. "It's hard to understand why the task force would fear that this would take time away from high quality writing instruction," Coletti said. "There's not that much of it going on."

Officials at the ACT also noted that they had involved NCTE members in developing their test, and they shared the College Board's view that the writing test is just one method for encouraging good writing and shouldn't be judged as the sole approach to that issue.

Cathy Welch, assistant vice president of ACT for its Performance Assessment Center, said that the ACT's approach -- adding the writing test and making it optional -- responded to college requests. About one-third of colleges surveyed wanted the ACT to add the test, she said, and the organization wanted to oblige, but it didn't want to force the test on the majority of colleges that didn't want it.

Welch also said that the ACT takes a different approach to essay topics on its writing test -- so the criticism in the English teachers' report does not apply. "Our prompts cover issues that high school students deal with every day, issues that are relevant to their lives," Welch said. Examples include: Should high schools adopt dress codes for students? Should high schools adopt "good conduct" policies for athletes on school sports teams?


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