Univ. adapts to changes in SAT

The addition of the writing section to the SAT I two years ago has caused barely a ripple in college admissions at top-tier schools like Yale.

The writing section, first implemented in March 2005, increased the total number of available points from 1600 to 2400 and extended the time allotted from two and a half hours to three hours and 20 minutes. When instituting the change, the College Board — which administers the test — said the writing section would more accurately reflect what students learn in high school and would indicate how students will perform on college-level writing assignments. But many schools are waiting to consider the writing score when evaluating applicants, while administrators at elite schools such as Yale and Harvard said SAT scores are almost never a determining factor in their admissions process.

The 60-minute writing section, which tests grammar, usage and word choice, consists of a 25-minute student-written essay and 35 minutes of multiple-choice questions. Like the mathematics and critical reading sections of the exam, it is graded on a scale of 200 to 800. According to the College Board Web site, the writing section tests students’ abilities to “organize and express ideas clearly, develop and support the main idea, and use appropriate word choice and sentence structure.”

Dean of Admissions Jeff Brenzel said that in the Yale admissions process, SAT scores are “not all that helpful or significant” because virtually all realistic applicants score in the top range of SAT scores.

“With respect to the writing score, we look to see if it falls into a similar range as the other scores, but again, strong SAT I scores are more of a baseline qualification for realistic Yale applicants, not something that really separates or distinguishes thousands upon thousands of our candidates,” he said.

Harvard Director of Admissions Marlyn McGrath-Lewis said colleges usually have several other writing samples from candidates, including the application essay.

“We look at it along with everything else available to us because we don’t make admissions decisions by any formula,” she said. “We’re trying to form a holistic sense of the applicant, and anything that’s going to help us we’ll look at. The writing score was not decisive in any case that I can recall.”

McGrath-Lewis said it can often be helpful to have the SAT writing sample because other writing samples, like the application essay, may have benefited from the help of a parent or tutor. But the writing test is also “highly coachable” because of its simple grading standards, she said.

Admissions officers at other schools around the country said they are waiting to see how students who graduated high school in 2006 — the first class to take the writing test — fare in their first year of college before giving greater weight to the writing test score.

Philip Ballinger, director of admissions at the University of Washington, said his school will consider the writing score, depending on how conclusive the data is for this year’s freshman class. The writing SAT scores may be able to predict measures of college performance, he said, including grades in freshman English classes, general academic outcome or retention.

“We want to apply it to all sorts of variables to see how it’s useful, like how it’s useful differently than the critical reading score,” Ballinger said. “Those are the kinds of things we’re curious about, but the question is whether we’ll be able to answer all those questions after a year’s worth of data, or whether we’ll need a couple of years.”

Justin Voss, associate director of admission at Pitzer College, said he does not believe the writing section of the SAT is indicative of how a student will perform on college-level writing assignments because of the formulaic nature of the writing and scoring for the test. Students who write a typical five-paragraph essay with a thesis, supporting evidence and conclusion will score high, he said, while students who were not taught to write that way in high school or who try to be more creative may be penalized.

High school guidance counselors said that while they think their students are adjusting well to the new requirements, they do not see the writing section as a significantly valuable addition to standardized assessment of applicants.

Renee Bischoff, college counselor at the private Polytechnic School in Pasadena, Calif., said the test may accurately evaluate students’ writing abilities by demanding that they compose a cogent argument under time pressure, but she finds her students are often exhausted after taking the arduous exam for over three hours. Schools are probably not giving much weight to the individual writing score, she said.

“I think most people are looking at it as ‘Okay, if you get an 800 or 750, you’re probably a pretty good writer,’ but if you get a 650, does that mean you’re terrible?” Bischoff said. “I don’t think people are really comfortable saying that.”

Yale requires applicants to submit either the SAT I and three SAT II subject tests or the American College Test, known as the ACT, with its Writing Test, if available. The SAT II Writing subject test was discontinued after the introduction of the new SAT I.

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