washingtonpost.com  > Education > Higher Education

Teachers Give New SAT Essay Low Marks

Council Calls Test A Poor Predictor

By Michael Dobbs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, May 4, 2005; Page A10

A professional organization representing 60,000 teachers of English criticized the new essay portion of the SAT as a poor predictor of how well students will perform in college and expressed concern that it could encourage mediocre, formulaic writing.

The report by the National Council of Teachers of English comes as half a million students prepare to take the SAT this weekend. The standardized test, part of the entrance requirements for many colleges, was expanded this year to include a writing and essay section in response to criticism from leading educators, including the president of the University of California, that it was too narrow in scope and discriminated against minority students.

"The skills that are needed to do well on this test represent a very narrow range of the skills that students will need to do well in the marketplace," said Robert Yagelski, a professor of English education at the State University of New York at Albany and chairman of the task force that drew up the report.

The College Board, which owns the SAT, attacked the report as "elitist." College Board spokeswoman Chiara Coletti noted that six of seven members of the task force are college professors rather than high school English teachers.

"It is very condescending," Coletti said, arguing that the new SAT will help focus attention on writing skills in the "many classrooms in this country where very little writing is taught."

The writing portion of the SAT, administered for the first time last month, consists of multiple-choice grammar and comprehension sections, as well as a 25-minute essay. Students are required to write about a general theme, such as the advantages and disadvantages of secrecy, drawing on examples from literature or history or their personal experience.

The College Board maintains that the new SAT will provide college admissions counselors with an independently authenticated sample of a student's writing to supplement other pieces of writing, including the personal essay that often accompanies a college application. Critics say the test will not encourage good writing because it allows little time for either revision or careful preparation.

Asserting that the writing section of the new SAT is very similar to the old SAT II writing test, the task force said there was "no evidence" to suggest that it would be useful in "predicting a student's first year course grades" or writing performance. It said that the time spent on test preparation is "likely to take precious time away from high quality writing instruction."

Bernie Phelan, an Illinois high school teacher who worked with the College Board on designing the new SAT, disputed the claim that the test will lead to a narrowing of the curriculum. "We never pretended that this test would solve all writing problems," he said. "The test asks a limited number of things."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company


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