- The Washington Times - Sunday, June 22, 2003

IOWA CITY, Iowa - Five scholars, hunkered down in a windowless conference room, analyzed a high school student’s essay with a scrutiny normally reserved for the likes of Hemingway or Dickens.

“We need to be more forgiving about the endings,” counseled Roseanne Cook, a program manager for the ACT, examining the handwritten pages. “We need to recognize what happens when they run out of time, or what happens when the proctor says there are only three minutes remaining.”

Miss Cook and the ACT certainly know something about deadlines.

The clock has been ticking down for the testing service since last year, when the ACT announced that it would add an optional essay to the second most popular college-entrance exam in the nation starting in spring 2005.

Since then, ACT test makers have been working to craft precise, thoughtful questions. The researchers also are figuring out how to grade an exam for hundreds of thousands of students that is not multiple choice.

“What we’re interested in is measuring the writing skills,” said ACT President Richard Ferguson. “Do the sentences flow logically? Do they hang together?”

A similar process is under way in Princeton, N.J., where the Educational Testing Service, which produces the SAT entrance exam for the College Board, is preparing an essay to be introduced in 2005.

Pressured to expand the scope of its exam by the biggest public higher-education system in the nation, the University of California, the SAT announced in June 2002 that it was adding an essay. The ACT announcement came two months later.

Although the ACT decided to provide students with an option to forgo the essay — because many colleges require a writing sample with their application — the SAT essay will be mandatory.

The ACT is not sure how many of the 1.1 million high school students who take its test each year will decide to write essays. About half the colleges that accept the ACT have said they will not require students to take the writing assessment.

To make sure it is ready for students who exercise the option, hundreds of ACT employees and consultants are immersed in reviews of subject matter and drawn-out debate on the phrasing of essay questions, known as prompts.

“We’ve never had the perfect item,” said Sherri Miller, the ACT’s director of elementary and secondary school measurement and research. “But we get pretty close.”

David Duer, a senior language-arts specialist, noted the change in going from a multiple-choice exam to an essay: “It’s a whole different experience to sit down with the writing. You get to understand who they are and what they are thinking.”

The ACT is identifying general-interest essay topics relevant to teenagers of every religion, race, ethnicity and state in the union.

“The bottom line is, whatever we wind up with needs to be a prompt that is clear to all students, fair to all students and gives each student a chance to show what they’ve learned in school,” said Cyndie Schmeiser, the ACT’s vice president of development.

Students will not be asked to elaborate on religion, politics, cataclysmic events or personal issues.

“You certainly don’t want to create a situation where a student will be distracted by a strong emotional reaction to a prompt,” Mr. Duer said.

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