SAT dropping the essay? Not Exactly.

 In Seriously?

 

For decades now, three little letters have had the capacity to instill fear in the hearts of many. They can three strike like shards of glass through the souls of adolescents and their hopeful parents. Those letters? S. A. T.

By now, many of you have read the headlines about the big changes in store for the SAT. Beginning in 2016, Students will see a very different test. Many of these changes are intended to make the test more in line with the type of skills expected at the collegiate level and less able to be “gamed” by students who can afford SAT prep classes aimed at developing strategies to maximize points scored.

Most headlines covering this topic focus on the assertion that the College Board is “dropping” the essay and returning to a top score of 1600. To be fair, these headlines are misleading. The essay is not being dropped; in fact, the essay will remain a component of the test, albeit an optional one. Some colleges, however, may require it for admission, which doesn’t make it very optional  for students choosing to apply to those schools.

As an educator, I applaud the College Board on this essential change, in particular. Currently, students are given 25 minutes to respond to an essay prompt. Twenty five minutes. This has always troubled me. After all, is this testing how well a student can write or how fast a student can write? Good writers take their time to plan and to revise. They take time to think about the topic and consider it from all angles. None of these factors are considered in twenty five minutes of mind crushing silence, delivered right out of the starting gate as the first part of the test. I imagine some students I know freezing up and panicking. We have all known writers block at some point in our lives…

Here’s something many of you may not know. What the students write in the current essay does not need to be factually accurate. The New York Times noted this in 2005 and questioned whether the essay was building bad writing habits, like fabricating data. (http://www.nytimes.com/2005/05/04/education/04education.html?_r=0) If, for instance, a writer errs or makes up a date, that inaccuracy is not counted against them. The reasoning for this is as follows; this is a test of writing, not knowledge of history. But, seriously? Why would we encourage carelessness like this?

So, good riddance to the twenty five minute essay, I say. Many colleges view it with suspicion and discard it, using only the critical reading and math scores when they evaluate applicants.

In my opinion, the upcoming changes to the SAT are good ones, primarily because they are aligning the test to look like the new high school curriculum, the Common Core curriculum. Any educator looking at the upcoming changes will see a startling parallel with the skills outlined in the Common Core and the changes planned for the SAT. For example, there will be less of an emphasis on vocabulary words that are not words students would be likely to encounter and a greater emphasis on vocabulary in context. The College Board is recognizing what New York State’s Department of Education is recognizing- there are ways to game the test, ways to teach the test instead of the curriculum. This creates many problems, not the least of which is that ever present gap between the Haves and the Have Nots. The affluent in our society have always had an advantage with this test. Not only do they have access to better schools, but they can afford to pay for SAT Prep classes designed to teach strategies to maximize points. These courses can be effective, but they are often expensive. It’s safe to conclude that students in poorer, inner city schools are at a disadvantage in this game.

But, it looks like the new test will be a game changer.

If you want to know what the changes really mean, you need to go right to the source, the College Board.  (https://www.collegeboard.org/delivering-opportunity/sat/redesign)  Some of the highlights are listed below:

  1. The type of vocabulary will change. As it is now, students can and do attempt to memorize hundreds of words they will see rarely in everyday life. The Washington Post mentions words like “punctilious” and “phlegmatic” as examples. (http://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/sat-to-drop-essay-requirement)

Instead, vocabulary on this new test will stick with words students might actually encounter in reading at the college level and will focus on close reading and contextual clues.

2. Command of Evidence. Educators are hearing these words a lot lately. The emphasis on reading in the common core is on making claims about what you read and finding evidence to back those claims up. The College Board indicates they will follow suit, even designing questions that ask the student to select a quote from the passage that best supports the answer they chose in the previous question.

3. The Essay, not necessarily required, will ask students to analyze a source. They will be asked to read a passage and explain how the author structures and builds an argument. This is very similar to what they are being asked to do on the new Common Core ELA Regents Exam. But more importantly, the students will be given the prompt in advance. This is a critical change since it now provides students with the most valuable component of quality writing- time to think.

4. Math will focus on three areas: problem solving/data analysis, linear equations, and familiarity with complex equations.

5. There will be analysis of Science and Social Studies.

6. We can expect to see  “founding documents,” such as the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights.

And last, but definitely not least:

  1. NO PENALTY for wrong answers.

We haven’t seen the test yet, but, as an educator, I am glad to finally see a closer correlation between the high school curriculum and the SAT. These changes will no doubt help the Common Core initiative because if schools are taking the Core seriously and teaching to the standards with integrity, students should go into the SAT with less fear and more confidence. The tasks will, hopefully, be familiar to them. Furthermore, these changes may help address the economic disparity in SAT scores that have plagued our country.

We shall see.

 

 

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