The decision to add a written essay to the widely taken SAT college entrance exam has raised new questions.
Can someone from a home where another language is spoken whip out polished prose in English in 25 minutes? If not, does that mean he or she doesn’t deserve to go to a competitive college?
“The time limit is particularly difficult for kids who have to translate in their head,” says Robert Schaeffer of Fair Test, a Massachusetts-based group that advocates less reliance on standardized tests. In the real world of college, he argues, “if you write slowly or need a dictionary or have to stay up all night, you can do it.”
On the other hand, the writing test “gets at real behavior,” and the ability to speak, read and write in English is key to undergraduate success, says Wayne Camara, vice president for research at the College Board, the New York-based nonprofit that owns the SAT.
The SAT changes were prompted when University of California President Richard C. Atkinson proposed dropping the SAT. With 150,000 undergrads, UC is the test’s biggest user.
UC faculty proved reluctant to go test-free, suggesting development of a new exam, an ambitious plan that never really flowered. Meanwhile, the College Board and Iowa-based ACT, Inc., makers of the rival ACT entrance exam, made changes.
ACT is adding an essay for California students only; its officials are still working on the format.
The point is not to keep English-learners out of college, but to measure their ability to write, says ACT spokesman Ken Gullette. “They will need the skills, so to measure the skills and to give them information to help them improve their skills is a good thing.”
The SAT makeover, which included dropping the often-criticized analogy section and making math questions tougher, was heralded by Atkinson as “a transforming event in the nature of education.”
But at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, executive director Margaret Fung has heard from several concerned parents and students.
“It’s clear that Asian families want to be sure their children speak English. It just seems as if that (essay requirement) may put people at a disadvantage,” she says.
At the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, officials say it’s too soon to know if the new requirement will be a problem, “but at a minimum we know the essay will not improve the situation,” says attorney Victor Viramontes. “The older version of the SAT discriminates against English-learners and on its face the changes do not address the problem.”
A 2001 College Board report found that students whose first language was not English had a mean score of 455 on the SAT verbal test, compared to a mean score of 517 for those who spoke English first.
The report also found that students from Hispanic or Asian backgrounds in general had lower verbal scores than white students.
The essay requirement isn’t a change for UC-bound students. UC already requires the SAT II writing test, which also includes an essay, a requirement that likely will be dropped now.
The SAT is a “reasoning test” that tries to measure overall academic ability. The SAT IIs are “subject tests,” that try to assess what students have learned in the classroom. UC requires three SAT IIs, writing, math and a third to be chosen from a variety of subjects.
Patrick Hayashi, associate president of UC, says making the essay a national requirement, along with the other SAT changes, has “the potential of actually helping nonnative speakers because I think it will encourage the development of better writing classes.”
As for the time-limit complaint, “I think you have plenty of time to write that essay,” he says.
The SAT IIs have also been criticized, with complaints focusing on the Chinese and Spanish language tests, which are among the options students can choose for the third test. Critics say students from homes where those languages are spoken ace the tests even though they didn’t study the languages in high school.
SAT II scores count twice as much as regular SAT scores at UC. But UC officials note that any one SAT II score makes up only 25 percent of the total test battery and also point out that mastering a second language is an academic skill.
UC research shows the language tests don’t have a big impact on the ethnic makeup of students admitted — a hot-button issue at UC, where race-based admissions have been banned since 1998.
The number of black and Hispanic students dropped sharply immediately after the ban, especially at highly competitive Berkeley and UCLA. Since then, the numbers have increased, although Berkeley still admits far fewer black students.
Meanwhile, Asian-Americans, who did not get affirmative action, comprise the largest single group at four of UC’s eight undergraduate campuses; at one of those, UC Irvine, they are the majority at 55 percent of the student body. Statewide, Asian-Americans make up about 11 percent of the population.
Berkeley ethnic studies professor Ling-Chi Wang says he has heard from some who worry that the emphasis on writing is a way to boost diversity by curbing admission of Asian-Americans.
UC and testing officials deny that.
Wang, meanwhile, says he is not troubled by the issue, because “I personally strongly support the notion of diversity,” and because he expects Asian-Americans will meet the new challenge.
Some think it’s a bad idea to put too much faith in testing, revamped or not.
At Bates College, a small liberal arts college in Maine where applicants aren’t required to submit test scores, students who don’t submit scores end up having slightly higher grade point averages.
“Do the tests screen out more students who would be successful in college than they help you find? Bates’ answer to that question is a clear, ringing, ’Yes,”’ says Bill Hiss, the college’s vice president for external and alumni affairs.
Hiss recalls the case of an applicant with a very low SAT verbal score of 400. The student, a Vietnamese immigrant who was valedictorian of her high school class, was accepted, graduated Phi Beta Kappa and magna cum laude in biology, took a year off to found a mentoring program for immigrant students and went on to medical school.
UC has switched to “comprehensive review” admissions which means they can consider hardships a student has overcome, so it’s possible they, too, would have admitted that student.
Still, Hiss asks, “Is a controlled writing sample going to help Latino and international and immigrant kids? For most of them it won’t. A writing sample is going to help youngsters who are at the best suburban high schools and prep schools.”