SAT Essay Blues

The redesigned essays for the SAT and ACT are falling on hard times. Fewer and fewer schools are interested in using these essays for admissions. It may take years for these essays to win back broad acceptance by admissions officers across the country.

And this, I believe, is somewhat unfortunate. The SAT essay, in particular, is being judged harshly, perhaps unfairly, due to its association with other less reliable essays. Penn announced last year that it would not require the SAT essay for admissions because for Penn students, “the essay component of the SAT was the least-predictive element of the overall writing section of the SAT.” While it is true that the Old SAT essay is a weak predictor of college performance, the Redesigned SAT essay is a bird of a different feather. It is a deeply analytical essay borrowed directly from the AP Language exam. It is a dramatic improvement from the previous iteration of the SAT essay, and will almost certainly correlate more highly with freshman and 4-year college GPAs. But it is being prematurely judged on account of its predecessor.

In a similar fashion, the SAT essay has to pay for the sins of its competitor cousin, the ACT essay. The ACT essay, in embarrassing fashion, had to abandon its more nuanced 36 point scaled score and regress to the simpler 12 point scale of old. The ACT faced tremendous issues of reliability in which scores of 19 were revised to 31 upon review by more senior ACT officials. When an admissions officer could not distinguish between an essay that scored a 19 or a 31, the whole project was called into question. On top of this, the ACT essay has regressed from its more philosophical and nuanced topics (e.g., “should citizens reject or embrace laws they consider to be unethical or antiquated?”) back to the more mundane high school topics (e.g., “athletics in education”) which were prevalent for nearly a decade. Thus the ACT has lost the nuance of its grading scale and abandoned its project of assessing higher level critical thinking and analysis.

But the Redesigned SAT essay is its own essay and should be judged independently of the ACT essay and the old SAT essay. College Board graders have been successfully grading AP Language essays for decades and the SAT essay can apply the experience and skill that have been honed within the organization. Certainly there are challenges to scaling up the number of trained essay graders, but they do not have to reinvent the wheel or design a grading rubric from scratch. This is a familiar and tested AP-derived product.

As we approach admissions deadlines, we are learning about more and more colleges that will not require the essay from either the SAT or ACT, or even consider it in admission decisions. UGA recently added to its website that “starting in 2017, UGA does not require the SAT or ACT essay, and [it] will not use these scores in [its] review.” Hundreds of colleges and universities have made the essays optional and that seems to be the dominant position in this upcoming admissions cycle.

It may take a few years of data, but I’m confident that the Redesigned SAT essay will prove to be a significantly stronger predictor of college performance, and particularly freshman English performance, than the former SAT essay. I want to give the College Board credit for improving their assessment and more effectively measuring the kind of skills required for success in college. In time, I believe their efforts will be vindicated. Meanwhile, we must wait for colleges to collect and analyze their own institutional data, which will take several years. Just as many colleges came to eventually require the Writing section of the SAT, many, I believe, will eventually come to require the SAT essay for admissions.

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