WHEN THE SAT and ACT added essay sections in 2005, the move was greeted with fanfare from teachers, parents and college admissions departments — groups that rarely see eye to eye. The essay tests were supposed to revolutionize American education by placing emphasis on a skill that many feared was becoming a rare commodity: the ability to write. But they fell far short of meeting these expectations. Recently, Princeton University, Stanford University, Brown University and the California Institute of Technology joined a growing list of schools making it optional for applicants to submit essay test scores. As of this summer, there are fewer than 25 schools across the country that still require students to send in essay scores.
This fall from grace was swift but not necessarily surprising. The essay section was criticized as a poor predictor of how students will perform in college. The questions are not always in line with high school or college assignments, and the scoring can be notoriously unpredictable. The essay also raises access concerns: It costs between $16.50 and $17 more to take the test with the essay and, though many schools offer free SAT and ACT testing, they often leave out the extra section. How should colleges judge applicants’ writing skills?
However, without the essay scores, colleges will have no consistent way of measuring a student’s communication skills. Applicants must submit personal essays to most colleges, but these do not always reflect a student’s original work. Moreover, given that some states use the SAT or ACT to evaluate school performance, it would be a mistake to exclude essay-writing — a skill students are expected to learn in high school — from the assessments altogether.
Some colleges have found ways to strike an uneasy balance. Princeton now requires applicants to submit a graded piece of high school writing, preferably in English or history. The university hopes that a written exercise for class, which is not timed and comes at no extra cost, would more accurately represent a student’s writing ability.
The SAT and ACT essay tests have not become obsolete yet: Many students will continue to take them to make their college applications more competitive, or because they live in states that require these tests for school evaluations. But, as an experiment to evaluate writing skills and provide admissions departments with better information, they have largely flopped. Colleges and testing companies need to find better ways to measure how students construct arguments, marshal evidence and, well, write. Those are important skills, and not just in college.