Colleges still unsure how to use new SAT

Many schools waiting to see how writing scores correspond with performance

By Eleanor Chute, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Two years after the College Board added a new section on writing to the SAT, many colleges and universities still haven’t decided what to do with it.

Many — including Carnegie Mellon, Penn State, the University of Pittsburgh and Duquesne University — are waiting to see how it matches up with students’ actual college performance before using it in admissions or placement. Some are waiting at least until the fall 2009 entering class.

Others have taken the plunge. They include Seton Hill University, which uses the writing test for admission and English placement, and Grove City College, which uses it for placement.

High school students sometimes grumble about the time taken up with an hour-long test that may not even count, said Grant Williams, supervisor of guidance for the Mt. Lebanon School District.

“The writing test has been a little bit of a flash point with a lot of students, primarily because they know a lot of colleges are still not utilizing it in admissions,” he said.

The move to change the test was prompted by comments made in 2001 by Richard Atkinson, then president of the University of California, the largest higher education system in the nation.

He threatened to stop using the SAT, saying that the test needed to match more closely what students learn in school.

The result was a revised SAT, given for the first time in March 2005. It included not only an additional section on writing but math and verbal sections, renamed critical reading. Each section is worth 200 to 800 points, so the total possible score rose from 1600 to 2400 points.

One of the College Board’s goals was to encourage high school to do a better job of teaching writing.

On the writing test, about a third of the points come from the 25-minute essay. The rest is multiple choice.

Dr. Atkinson praised the changes, but the National Council of the Teachers of English two years ago said the writing test was “unlikely to improve writing instruction” and could even compromise such efforts because other forms of writing could be ignored.

NCTE President-Elect Kathleen Blake Yancey, an English professor at Florida State University, said the jury was still out on the test’s impact.

She maintained the timed essays are not similar to those college students must produce, in part because they are not based on research or study.

The College Board’s own research is preliminary, but its study of a pilot version of test at 13 colleges indicated the writing exam may have some usefulness in predicting college success.

More comprehensive studies will be possible once freshman year results are available for the first class to face the test, the high school Class of 2006.

A Princeton Review survey shows that about half of the 166 most selective colleges require either the writing score on the SAT or the other major college entrance exam, the ACT, which offers an optional writing test.

According to the ACT, most colleges are not requiring students take a writing test. In Pennsylvania, about a third of the colleges ACT surveyed required or recommended prospective students take a writing test.

Even some schools that recommend or require the writing test aren’t using it to make admission decisions yet.

“We’re going to require it for a couple of years and then run it against our data to see how they perform and what kind of correlations there are,” said Michael Steidel, director of admission at Carnegie Mellon University.

Because Seton Hill University freshman Emily Heinicka didn’t expect her writing score on the SAT to count, she was pleasantly surprised her strong score enabled her to skip a basic composition course. She went straight to the second course on thinking and writing.

“I’m done with my liberal arts core for my English requirement,” said Ms. Heinicka, of Irwin, a graduate of the Pittsburgh High School for the Creative and Performing Arts

Seton Hill used to give its own timed essay for English placement; now it relies on the subscore for the SAT essay which is worth up to 12 points. Students who earn a score of 8 or higher place out of the first course.

Seton Hill also requires instructors of the second course to give a non-timed writing assignment in the first two weeks to make sure the placement is correct before it’s too late to switch classes.

“It worked really well. Our feedback from both students and instructors of the writing classes has been very positive,” said Laura Patterson, assistant professor of English and coordinator of Seton Hill’s undergraduate writing programs.

While it relies on its own application essays for admissions, Grove City College also uses the SAT writing score in placement, permitting those who score at least 580 in writing or critical reading to bypass a writing proficiency class. All but about 30 students this school year were able to skip that class, said Jeff Mincey, director of admission.

On the old SAT, Grove City students could place out of the writing proficiency class with a 580 on the verbal section.

Some colleges have found the scores on the critical reading and writing tests are fairly similar.

At Duquesne University, freshmen last fall averaged 558 in critical reading and 551 in writing.

“I think the skill set is somewhat similar,” said Paul-James Cukanna, executive director of admissions and enrollment services at Duquesne University.

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(Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955. )