If you’re taking the SAT before March 2016, you’ll be asked to write a two page essay that makes a completely one-dimensional argument supporting a yes or no answer to a vaguely philosophical question. In fact, one of the most difficult parts about the 25 minute section might just be finding any sort of direction given the lameness of the prompt. But once you get going, if you can come up with some specific examples to support your claim and fill up two pages in the process, you’re pretty much golden. In fact, while your examples do have to be “specific” they do not have to be factual: a student writing that D-Day ended the Cold War between Siam and Spain in the year 1066 will likely receive a higher grade than a student who accurately identifies D-Day as the day the Allies invaded Normandy but forgets to include when it happened, provided that the first student was able to support his claim with his uninformed example.
You might say, “well, that’s not really fair,” and you’d be right! This shortcoming—and a few others that make this a less-than-ideal writing sample—has prompted the College Board to rethink the essay.
Kids, I have good news and I have bad news.
Good News—the essay is now optional, will be scored separately, and will appear at the end of the test (so you don’t have to get a cramp in your hand writing ferociously at 8 AM).
Bad News—The essay will now be fifty minutes and will require reading a document (boo!).
How can they keep you from making things up? By giving you a finite possibility of writing points determined by a persuasive essay that will be used as a source text. The actual prompt for the essay will remain more or less the same over different administrations of the test; rather, the source text will be the surprise. Each prompt will ask a student to analyze the source text in order to write an essay that effectively identifies how the author of the source text uses reasoning, evidence, and stylistic elements in order to build a cogent argument. Students should focus on the overall structure and point of view of the source text rather than weighing in with their own opinions.
In addition to keeping students from flat-out lying, the new essay is ostensibly designed to test not only a student’s writing ability but also his/her reading and analytic skills. The College Board also feels that by having a standard prompt and instead having the source text vary the new essay will require the student to “engage with the passage rather than rely on canned, generic responses generated ahead of time.” They further claim that these adjustments will provide a better writing sample rather than one that reflects “narrow ‘prep’ focused on mastery of an artificial test format.” Personally, I fail to see how having the same prompt over different administrations of the test would discourage students from memorizing/developing a format, but the claim that having a student interact with a text rather than having him/her answer a question that ignores the complexities of the world will produce a more accurate writing sample certainly seems legitimate.
Furthermore, the Essay, in all its “optional” glory, will now be scored separately on a scale of 6-24 (the College Board really hates zero). Each essay will still be reviewed by two graders, but, rather than receiving a blanket score of 1-6 from each grader, the sample will be scored on a scale of 1-4 in three areas (yielding a score of 3-12 from each grader): reading, analysis, and writing. Moreover, students will be evaluated on their understanding of the source text, their ability to track and articulate the argument that the passage presents, and their overall clarity, cogency, and organization.
“What about the multiple choice,” you ask? While the section is undergoing some significant format changes, we expect the revised section to be very similar in terms of the kind of preparation needed to tackle the test with speed and accuracy. Unlike the current version of the test, writing problems on the revised test will be presented by way of four passages from four content areas: careers, history/social studies, humanities, and science. Each passage will contain eleven questions, most of which will be centered around a student’s ability to recognize and correct grammar and usage errors. However, unlike the current test, the new test will also include questions that require a knowledge of proper punctuation, a “command of evidence,” and even the ability to read and synthesize information from a graphic or two. The College Board believes that this test will do a better job of also testing a student’s capacity to enhance the logical flow of ideas, which makes sense given that the test will now present errors in the context of a larger text.
Again, the content areas are significant for the elusive “across-test scores” that the revised test will now include in score reporting. It is still unclear as to what significance these scores will have. Since the SAT is moving back to a 1600 point scale, a student’s overall score for the multiple choice writing section will be reflected in the recombined Evidence-Based Reading and Writing score.