The standardized testing landscape changed considerably in March 2005 when the College Board debuted a revised SAT that included a writing section.

With this testing earthquake now almost two years in the past, and the first group of test-takers nearly completing their first year of college, some early returns are starting to come in regarding the performance of students on the revised exam.

In a February 2007 e-newsletter for guidance counselors and admissions officers, the College Board provided highlights of a new analysis of the SAT Writing section, conducted by a trio of the organization’s research scientists.

Titled “SAT Writing: An Overview of Research and Psychometrics to Date,” the analysis was interesting on a number of points. Of particular note was the fact that the vast majority of students – 93 percent – have similar (within 100 points) writing and critical reading scores. For the 7 percent of students who have dissimilar scores in those two areas, half scored more than 100 points higher on critical reading and half scored more than 100 points higher on writing.

According to the College Board study, two in three members of the “better at reading” group were males and two in three members of the “better at writing” group were females. I thought this was a noteworthy gender difference and should be something that is watched closely in the future, both by schools and by parents.

Elsewhere in the analysis, I found several tidbits that I thought would be of interest to current and future college parents. As an aside, I’m not sure I should admit how I approached the study, as “critical reading” surely must go beyond finding tidbits. But nevertheless, someone should do the “tidbit farming” for us parents, and if not me, who?

Here goes:

  • WRITING STYLE DIFFERENCES ALONE SEEM TO MATTER LITTLE – The researchers found little difference in the mean scores for papers written in the first person as compared to those that were not, for those in cursive versus those that were printed and for those citing academic examples as opposed to personal examples.
  • THE ADDITION OF WRITING DID NOT INCREASE SCORE DISPARITIES WITHIN AND AMONG SOME MINORITY GROUPS – Here the researchers demonstrated that the gap was similar or smaller than those on the critical reading section for African American, ESL (first language other than English) or Mexican American students. However, Native American, Puerto Rican and other Hispanic American groups did demonstrate slightly larger differences on the writing section than on the critical reading section.
  • ONE OF THE PRIMARY PURPOSES OF THE ADDITION OF THE SAT WRITING SECTION IS TO BOLSTER STUDENTS’ CHANCES FOR SUCCESS IN COLLEGE – To examine this point more closely, the College Board surveyed high school language arts teachers and curriculum directors to better learn their views on changes in writing attitudes and expectations among key constituents, including parents. According to the College Board study, the vast majority of both teachers and curriculum directors report that writing has become more important in their school or district over the past three years. Among teachers, 88 percent rate writing as of greater importance and among curriculum directors, that already high figure climbs to 93 percent.
  • COACHING HELPS – One of the more widespread concerns raised prior to the introduction of the writing section was the inherent unfairness created as those who could afford to be “coached” on the essay would no doubt perform better than those who could not afford or who chose not to participate in an SAT coaching program. Here, as with much of the research cited, the early results are worthy of closer, ongoing study. What seems to have occurred, based on research involving both pre and post-test performance, is that students who were coached for the SAT writing section did not just learn how to write a high-scoring SAT essay, they learned how to write a better essay period, perhaps not a bad result at all for their long-term performance in high school and college. Nevertheless, of course, such a preliminary finding rings the warning bell when it comes to unfairness for those who are not “coached” for the writing section. To me, the bottom line lesson is that writing is an acquired skill, and the transfer of this skill should be of the highest importance to all who are responsible for teaching our sons and daughters.

Reading about developments at America’s colleges and universities is an acquired taste and those of you who click on this Web site have certainly demonstrated your interest in learning about what makes higher education tick. Thanks for visiting.