California Forum

The SAT essay is dying. The University of California should put it out of its misery

The SAT essay exam is increasingly rejected by college admissions officers, but the University of California continues to use it. Here, a sign asks for quiet during a college test preparation class in 2016.
The SAT essay exam is increasingly rejected by college admissions officers, but the University of California continues to use it. Here, a sign asks for quiet during a college test preparation class in 2016. AP

Thirteen years ago, I trained to become a grader of SAT essays, then took (and passed) the test required to qualify. My goal wasn’t to embark on a side hustle reading college-entrance exams. It was to see up close how the newly introduced essay portion, by its nature a subjective measurement of skill, would fit with the multiple-choice test that was supposed to bring a certain amount of disinterested objectivity to college admissions. And to write about it from the inside.

I wasn’t impressed.

Though the testing experts had gone to pains to make the grading as valid as possible – with double readers, and a sort of referee if the two scores were significantly different – the essay portion had little to do with the kind of writing college students are expected to do.

It didn’t measure critical thinking skills because students could make up anything they wanted to as an argument to justify their assertions, and graders weren’t supposed to mark them down even if they were wildly inaccurate or based on nonsense. Students were given too little time to do any thoughtful writing. And, though the College Board tried to deny it, writing longer instead of better made for higher scores. (Les Perelman, a director of writing at MIT, found that he could guess the score on an SAT essay just by eyeballing its length from a distance.)

The essay was also fairly coachable for students whose parents had the money for that sort of thing.

“If I had to prepare my children for this test, I’d say: Prepackage some thinking,” I wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Get familiar with a couple of Greek myths or literary classics that would work for multiple themes. One of the very few essays to score a [top grade of] ‘6’ – a well-earned one – used “Madame Bovary” to illustrate the harm secrets can do. But the writer could also have used Flaubert’s classic to discuss image versus substance, or ambition versus contentment or almost any of the nostrums test-makers use as essay prompts. (Remember, most of the scorers are former or current English teachers – suckers for literary stuff.)

“More advice: Prepare a few highly burnished words that can be applied to almost any situation. A prepared sentence or two wouldn’t hurt. One essay struck me with its well-wrought line: ‘It may be the case, then, that secrecy has its own time and place in our vast world.’ I was dazzled by the calm maturity of that sentence – until I realized it could well have been composed in advance. Ritual has its own time and place in our vast world, as does protest, passion, tomfoolery – even testing. No matter, I gave the kid credit for planning. With so little time to write – in pencil, no less! – no one can afford to spend time actually thinking.”

It came as no surprise and no loss when the essay portion was made optional in 2016, during a redesign of the SAT. It hasn’t taken long for universities to drop it as an application requirement. Those include the big-big names such as Stanford, Harvard, Yale, the University of Michigan and University of Chicago. Only 25 colleges still require the test, according to the publication Inside Higher Ed, and between the time I write this and publication, the number will probably have dropped some more.

In some cases, this isn’t a real drop; Stanford is still strongly recommending the writing portion of the SAT or ACT test, which means that almost everybody applying is going to take it.

Princeton came up with a different approach: It wants to see a graded paper from a high school class. Its Ivy League colleague Brown University is recommending the same.

The idea of the SAT essay, and of the college entrance exams in general, is that they act as a check on the many high schools that inflate grades or that simply set low standards. In theory, the test would show whether great grades are a reflection of great work. But the SAT essay is too blunt an instrument to accomplish that task. It can be gamed by many students, and for those who take a more thoughtful approach to their work, the window of time is simply inadequate.

Graded writing samples from schools would be preferable – if schools could be trusted to show the students’ full work instead of polishing their prose until it shone. Schools for richer kids are more likely to do that.

It also would be better if the universities asked for an in-class writing assignment. In the rarefied world of hyper-frenzied admissions and $1,000-an-hour SAT tutors, I wouldn’t put it past affluent parents to have a tutor write their kids’ assignments. (And too many parents already are paying tutors to write their kids’ application essays.)

Graded, in-class writing assignments would be more aligned with actual college classwork than the prompts given by the tests. Colleges could see a student’s writing instead of a score that might not reflect a student’s skills. And students would have to show off some critical thinking skills, basing their analysis on facts.

Yet one big university system is helping to keep the SAT essay alive at this point – the University of California. With more than 200,000 applicants and a limited budget, even a blunt instrument can be preferable to combing through piles of individual student essays.

Understandable. Yet it’s better to have fewer measurements of a student as long as those are better measurements. UC should be examining whether the set of four mini-essays that it requires of applicants is better than one full, in-class essay that represents a student’s real academic work.

That’s especially true considering the ever-bigger number of students vying for a seat at a UC campus. It’s time for colleges to do more to discourage the influx of ultra-prepped, tutor-buttressed applications and look at authentic academic work. That of course begs the question of whether we need the SAT or ACT at all – a topic to be examined as we enter college-application season.

Karin Klein is a veteran California journalist and commentator. She can be contacted at karinkleinmedia@gmail.com. Follow her on Twitter @kklein100.

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