Why cutting writing section from the SAT is a bad idea

March 12

The news last week that the structure of the SAT had changed and the mandatory writing section was being eliminated was quite the topic of discussion in my house — but not at all in the way I had anticipated.

When I read the news stories, I was outraged. How could the College Board argue that it was changing the test to hew more closely to high school curriculum and what kids needed to be prepared for college, but eliminate the part of the test that assesses whether a student can formulate an argument and translate that argument clearly into writing?

I anticipated one of two reactions from my own sons, who are within weeks of making their final decisions about college. I thought they would either be righteously outraged that the change hadn’t occurred sooner so that they wouldn’t have to endure the writing portion of the exam or, at the very least, cheer the fact that the SAT was being trimmed from an arduous three hours and 45 minutes to a mere three hours by eliminating the writing portion.

“Are you kidding me? That’s the dumbest idea I’ve ever heard. Who thinks you shouldn’t have to prove you can write to get into college?”

Now if this response had come from my son who has just finished his fourth novel, I guess I would have understood it. Instead, it came from my computer science kid — the one whose SAT scores look much better on a 1600 scale (without writing) than on the 2400 scale (with it). Even though the change would have benefitted him, he was making the argument that no matter what you study, you need to be able to write clearly.

Since being introduced in 2005, the essay has been controversial. It lengthened the test and added even more pressure, and many asked how meaningful a predictor of college success could a 25-minute essay be. When my sons took their first practice SAT and came home with the essay portion of the exam, I blanched. The assignment was to write a five-paragraph essay arguing whether progress depends on an appreciation for nature, using examples from personal experience, history and literature. I am pretty sure that half of The Washington Post newsroom would struggle with such an assignment on deadline.

But if, as stated, part of the reason for the changes in the test is to level the playing field for low-income families, why eliminate the best way to judge whether a kid can actually write a coherent sentence without help? (And to anyone who says that that’s what the college essay is for, let’s be clear that the college essays are evidence that “it takes a village” to get into college. The same parents who pay a mint for college test prep also hire writing coaches to massage their child’s essay.)

Maybe the SAT did need to change, and maybe an almost four-hour test is too onerous. But eliminating the part of the test that challenges kids’ ability to think and write clearly can’t possibly be in the best interest of students, colleges or our country.

And don’t just take my word for it; take my kids’.

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