Thursday, October 11, 2007

Is the writing exam required? Yes, but ...

My story in the October Carolina Journal is top of the fold in the online edition today.

Colleges Assess Changes in SAT
Schools mixed in assessment of new Scholastic Assessment Test

By Hal Young
October 11, 2007

RALEIGH — The Scholastic Assessment Test has been a fixture in college admissions since the 1920s. The 2005 revision of the test eliminated the familiar analogies from the verbal section and increased the difficulty of reading selections and math problems to reflect heightened college entrance expectations.

The most significant change, though, was a new section to test writing skills, including a timed essay. Two years after the change, colleges in North Carolina are still divided on how to use the new writing scores, and many still expect their own essays from applicants.

An evolving standard

The SAT was developed in 1926 as a way to make college entrance exams more equitable nationwide. The College Board, which publishes the SAT, has updated the test several times as high school curricula and college requirements changed. The addition of a writing component had been in the works since the early 1990s, but implementation was delayed until technology was available to transmit the hundreds of thousands of handwritten essays to graders around the country.

Duke University was initially concerned whether the longer test might have an effect on student scores. The writing section lengthened the duration of the test from 150 minutes to well over three hours, and the typical Saturday morning SAT administration now lasts nearly four hours.

“There was not much research in the fatigue factor,” said Anne Sjostrom, associate director of undergraduate admissions at Duke University. “We wanted to be sensitive to that possibility.”

However, since the new section replaced a separate College Board writing test that Duke also required, Sjostrom said they did adopt the new scores quickly.

“We use it in much the same way that we used the SAT II subject test for writing,” she said. “There’s not a mathematical formula we plug into to determine whether a student is admitted to Duke. I don’t know of a case where that or any other score is the determining factor.”

Other colleges aren’t convinced yet. Heidi Fletcher, director of admissions at Meredith College, said the college is still collecting data from the new SAT. “We’re presently not using it for admissions decisions but we’re doing a lot of tracking on how freshmen do on English 111,” she said. “I love having some information on the writing skills of the students — if it’s accurate.”

Roger Jones, director of admissions for Belmont Abbey College, said “We’re taking a wait and see attitude. This is the first year it is has come into consideration at all.” Belmont Abbey only uses the score for “borderline cases,” he said, for applications that are designated for an admissions review committee.

Elon University, on the other hand, fully incorporated the SAT writing score into its admissions process this year. “Three years ago, when it was first announced, we said that we’d take two years and not use it for admissions or scholarship consideration. That’s exactly what we have done,” said Elon’s dean of admissions, Greg Zaiser. “What we tried to do was establish where students score who perform on the acceptable level for Elon admission.”

State schools are sending mixed signals. N.C. State’s website says, “NC State and all other public universities in North Carolina require scores for the writing section of the SAT or ACT” but counselors are telling students they are not using the scores for admissions.

The University of North Carolina goes further, saying UNC “will review writing scores and, in some cases, may choose to review the actual essay.” However, “At this point, we are not using the writing score for admissions decisions,” said Jennifer Cox Bell, an assistant admissions counselor. Does she foresee a change in policy? “I do not,” she said.

The SAT is still not enough

While schools place different emphases on the new SAT score, many still have their own essay requirements. UNC requires a separate essay, as does Duke. Many colleges have adopted the “Common Application” form, which was pioneered by Ivy League schools. This streamlines much of the process and includes another essay section as well.

Zaiser said the SAT’s writing test provides a different perspective than the application essay alone.

“It gives students an opportunity to show what they can do on a timed essay. On the personal essay, they can proofread it and make revisions,” he said. “By and large, we find that students who perform well at Elon also did well on the writing portion.”

Sjostrom said student GPAs at Duke correlate more closely with the strength of their high school curriculum, teachers’ recommendations, and factors other than test scores.

“It verifies that a holistic admissions process makes sense,” she said.

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