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SAT Essay Changes Likely Coming

Zaragoza Guerra

Written by Zaragoza Guerraon May 13th, 2013

Prior to joining College Coach, I spent part of my career as director of admissions for the Boston Conservatory, where I oversaw overall recruitment and auditions for students interested in music, theater, and dance. I spent most of my admissions career, however, as an admissions officer for two institutes of technology. As an associate director of admissions at MIT, I directed overall recruitment and yield activities as well as international, transfer, and special student admissions. I also served as an assistant director of admissions for Caltech, where I handled specialized student recruitment and reviewed domestic and international student files.
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In part two of our series interviewing Megan Stubbendeck, Global Elite Instructor at Revolution Prep, regarding the news shared in the Washington Post article, College Board to make changes to SAT, College Coach discussed what some of the specific changes might be and got Megan’s take on changes she would like to see implemented. It seems David Coleman, the College Board’s president, has been giving hints he doesn’t think there is enough evidence-based writing in the SAT test, that it’s too opinion focused. Is this the most likely part to change? Although changes to the SAT essay are the central component that Coleman has discussed, he’s also talked about vocabulary and reading.  But keep in mind that the rewrites of the SAT involve a lot of players.  Because the College Board hasn’t released exact changes, we can surmise that the modifications currently under consideration may well transform again as the College Board develops the new test. The essay might be one of the likely targets for revision. Relatively speaking, the essay is new. The College Board officials may be seeing trends in the scoring, or they might even be getting feedback from colleges regarding the essay. Both might be affecting Coleman’s comments. Any thoughts as to how the writing portion of the SAT might change, if at all?  Coleman has pointed out that he wants to add more analysis and concreteness to the essay. His major beef with the writing portion of the test is that it is a very broad essay, and students essentially can make things up.

[Quote from Coleman in the Washington Post:  So if you look at the way the SAT assessment is designed, when you write an essay even if it’s an opinion piece, there’s no source information given to you. So in other words, you write like what you’re opinion is on a subject, but there’s no fact on the table. So a friend of mine tutors in Hong Kong, and she was asked by her Hong Kong students, where do you get the examples for the essay? She said, you know, it’s the American way, you make them up. Now I’m all for creativity and innovation, but I don’t think that’s quite the creativity we want to inspire in a generation of youth. That is, if writing is to be ready for the demands of career and college, it must be precise, it must be accurate, it must draw upon evidence.”]

What changes would help make the SAT essay portion more evidence-based? He’s right that analysis is a major component of all good academic writing.  It comes into play when students try to find the right evidence to support their arguments. On the current SAT essay, there are two things a student can respond to and analyze.  The test has a quote, and below that quote is the prompt (the actual question).  An example of a prompt might be, “How important is it to blaze your own trail?” and there might be a quote from Amelia Earhart. On the test, students are required to analyze only the prompt, not the quote. Coleman’s discussed the possibility of adding more evidenced-based writing to the SAT essay. It’s possible the College Board may add more texts and quotes that a student would be required to analyze. Or there might be more direction in the prompt. How do SAT essays differ from ACT essays? In fact, the ACT provides a little bit more material in its essay prompt.  ACT essays are slightly more focused on a particular debate. For example, the ACT might ask “should schools require uniforms” or “should teenagers be allowed to vote.” The ACT provides a few points from each side of the debate and asks students to respond to the topic. Perhaps the College Board might go in that direction. While Coleman is right that there are additional ways to get students to analyze more material in the test, to get a good score on the current SAT, some analysis does already come into play--particularly with high-level essays.  High scorers don’t just throw a fact or a story into an essay but actually take the time to analyze how it supports the thesis. Were you to have an influence in the SAT test’s redesign, what might you want to see more of? I actually like many parts of the SAT in its current iteration.  It’s an interesting challenge for students.  The introduction of writing was a good addition and definitely a step in the right direction given the importance of writing in college. What I would like to see is more direction for the essay.  A bit more guidance would be very helpful, since students sometimes flounder--particularly students who don’t have access to prep.  It’s often hit or miss to get a 12.  I would also love to see more passages in the reading section. Having gone through many years of college as a student and taught college classes as an instructor, I know that reading is a fundamental part of college. Getting use to college-level reading can be the hardest transition for students. More passages on the SAT might be a great addition to help gauge this ability.   Getting-In-CTA  


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