Students and schools gearing up for introduction of essays

Tuesday, February 24, 2004

Just a high school sophomore, Claudette Rogers is already anxious about a test that's more than a year away -- the college entrance exam that will help determine her academic future.

She and her classmates have an extra reason to be. Rogers' class of 2006 will be the first to write a timed essay as part of the SAT, in addition to taking the traditional verbal and math sections.

The SAT's chief rival, the ACT, is making an essay an optional part of its exam, with both test-makers adding the writing section to tests taken in the spring of 2005.

"It's a bit nerve-racking because so much depends on it," said 16-year-old Rogers, who attends Hoover High School in Glendale, Calif. "And the fact they are changing it just increases the pressure."

To prepare for the "new" SAT, teachers, students and parents have been scrambling to sharpen writing skills, while college counselors are starting to hear from nervous parents -- including Rogers' mother.

"It's much tougher for them than when I was in school," said Arlette Rogers, part of the high school class of 1974. More than two years before her daughter goes off to college, Rogers contacted a private counselor to discuss how her daughter needs to prepare for the "new" SAT.

Harriet Broder, an independent counselor in Maryland, said the anxiety season is just beginning. "You think parents are complaining now about the unfairness of the test?" she said. "When these kids have to write an essay -- give me a break."

Starting early

Usually, it's 11th-graders who sign up with college preparatory services, because they generally take the SAT or ACT in the spring of junior year, prior to submitting college applications the following autumn. But that's changing.

"I'm getting a lot more panicked calls from 10th-graders," Broder said.

Sophomores and juniors at Wells High School in Wells, Maine, are among those prepping by taking two preliminary entrance exams, the PSAT and SAT II subject test.

Wells guidance counselor Stephen Newton thinks the writing exercises on mandatory state exams will also help prepare students for the college tests.

"This is the age of assessments," said Newton. "And the more opportunity they have to prepare, the better off they'll be when they exit the schools."

Still, private college counselors are starting to offer writing tutorials, and expecting business to pick up. "The idea is to get some practice writing and to get (students) to read more, especially things like editorials," said Marcy Manning, a private counselor in Sterling, Va.

Essay formula

The College Board, which owns the SAT, is concerned that tutors will teach students to use a set formula to compose the essay.

"This thing about 'gaming' the test, and the people who say they can teach kids the essay, is wrong," said College Board spokeswoman Chiara Coletti. "You really can't."

The writing sample, she noted, will require students to use specific arguments to support their position on the essay question.

"Essay preparation is a good thing if it helps students to write better. We're not in the least opposed to that," Coletti said.

"What worries us, for the sake of the kids, is any attempt to mislead them that they can have an essay in their back pocket and just use it during the course of the test -- because that will penalize the kid and result in them getting a zero on the essay."

The SAT essay actually will be scored on a scale of 1 to 6. Those receiving a perfect score, according to the College Board, will demonstrate "outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons, and other evidence to support" the student's argument.

In an article in the March edition of the Atlantic Monthly, the SAT's scoring system was applied to the work of Shakespeare, Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein and Theodore Kaczynski, the "Unabomber" who published an essay that led to his arrest in 1995.

Based on the writing, the magazine determined only Kaczynski would be admitted to an Ivy League school. Kaczysnski, serving a federal life term for using letter bombs to kill three and injure 23 over a 17-year period, is -- in fact -- a Harvard graduate.

"People are pulling their hair out, saying it's another test to worry about," said Pam Proctor said, an independent Florida counselor.

"But even though the fear factor may be driving them now, the result is that students who prepare for it are going to be better writers."

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