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.