- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 11, 2002

The College Board is expected to add an essay question to the Scholastic Assessment Test (SAT), which educators say could create a challenge for both college-bound students and high school teachers who would have to put more emphasis on writing in class.

Adding a question to the test could also cause setbacks for those students who are used to writing out their thoughts on computers, not longhand as the revised test would require them to do, educators argue.

"There are a number of logistical problems with adding an essay question," said Walt Haney, a professor at Boston College who also is a senior researcher at the school's Center for the Study of Testing, which has done studies on standardized tests.

"We ought to be assessing students not just in all the subjects we think are important, but in all the formats we think would demonstrate their skills," Mr. Haney said. "But this could really create a lot of setbacks for schools and force them to turn back the clock."

Other educators say that including an essay would challenge students to hone their writing skills in high school. "If there's a writing test that helps kids get into college, then schools are going to spend more time writing," Eva Baker, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles and co-director of the National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards and Student Testing told the Associated Press. "The change could be profound if it had the impact that we hope it would have on the high school."

The College Board, which owns the SAT, is scheduled to vote on whether to add the essay question, among other items, at its meeting June 27 in New York. Besides the essay question, other proposed changes to the SAT are gradually including math questions based on more advanced courses, such as algebra II and trigonometry, and replacing analogies with a text and questions that better gauge reading ability.

Administrative changes would include scoring the essay as a third section, apart from math and verbal, increasing the $25 test fee to $26 to cover the cost of grading the essay and scanning essays onto a Web site, where college administrators could read them.

The proposed SAT overhaul comes more than a year after University of California President Richard C. Atkinson startled academia with a call for his eight undergraduate campuses to drop the SAT I, the two-part verbal and math test taken by about 2 million students annually. Mr. Atkinson complained that the SAT did not find out what applicants actually learned in school.

The SAT's rival, the ACT exam, immediately added an essay question for applicants to California universities, and the company that produces the ACT might expand that nationwide. More than 1.9 million students took the ACT during the 2000-2001 academic year, compared with the 2.3 million students who took the SAT.

What worries some educators is that the new revisions may open the door for a more subjective and lenient grading process.

"The inclusion of an essay allows the College Board to achieve the appearance of toughening educational standards while creating an exam that produces more acceptable and equal scores for all students," said Winfield Myers, a spokesman with the Intercollegiate Studies Institute in Delaware. "Critics who demand equality of results will be silenced, and the board's customers, the universities who demand the SAT for admission, will be retained."

Still others, such as Mr. Haney, believe that the essays will yield unequal scores among the test-takers. He said research has shown that female students perform better than male students on essay questions and that upper- and middle-class students do better than those from lower-income families. "Some students will be more disadvantaged than others, and that will not be fair," Mr. Haney said.

Diane Waryold, executive director of the Center for Academic Integrity in North Carolina, said the essay, despite its problems, would at least provide college administrators with a "full picture" of an applicant. "Anything that is not standardized will give college officials a better picture of an applicant," she said. "And, that's always a good thing."

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