A Global Studies class of 10th and 11th graders work at Bedford Academy High School on Tuesday, Dec. 3, 2013 in New York. (Bebeto Matthews/AP)

You could hear the sound growing last week when the announcement hit the news: the SATs are being revamped. It started as a gasp of pleased surprise, grew into a confused cacophony of approval, and finally swelled to the full-throated cheers of a delighted mob. The very letters S.A.T. cause beads of sweat to break out on the foreheads of the vast majority of Americans. This high-stakes test has long been associated with one of the cornerstones of the American Dream: a college degree. Those who do not “test well,” or who were recovering from the flu on test day, or who had bad teachers 12 years running have envisioned the letters on a door slamming shut in their faces.

This overhaul of the dreaded exam, many hope, is a key step toward getting rid of it altogether. Many colleges and universities have already diminished the importance of the SAT for admissions, or allowed prospective students the option of withholding their scores.

What bothers me is that essay writing seems so easily expendable. It’s the first sandbag to go.

Feel the breeze generated by the collective sigh of relief. The essay portion of the test, added in 2005, will now be optional. The other major change is that students will no longer suffer an extra penalty for answering incorrectly. (One might say “guessing incorrectly,” but I don’t have a dog in that fight).

As a professor of college writing, I’d like to speak to the first change: the essay becoming optional. My guess is that the vast majority of test-takers will opt out. For many, it would be akin to a dentist telling a patient that brushing and flossing are now optional. No, more like a dentist announcing that fillings and root canals are now something you don’t necessarily need. I love to write, but I’m well aware that not everyone does.

A recent article in The New York Times Magazine cites MIT professor Les Perelman’s criticism of the essay portion of the test. He discovered that accuracy doesn’t necessarily matter to the graders of the essay, that longer essays tend to receive higher scores no matter the quality of their content, and that the prompts for the essays create an artificial writing situation that may not reflect the talents of the student writers. Everyone seems to agree: the SAT essay section is a flawed instrument. I would not advocate preserving a flawed instrument, and I’m not a huge fan of standardized tests as a measure of intelligence, aptitude or potential for continued academic success. I am, however, a touch bothered by this development.

What bothers me is that essay writing seems so easily expendable. It’s the first sandbag to go. But don’t we agree that it’s vital? Employers of all stripes cite it as one of the most important skills applicants can have. I can tell you from the perspective of someone with over two decades of experience that teaching writing is hard work. There’s no magic formula for doing it well. It’s more labor intensive than many other academic teaching assignments that can be graded by machine. Individual writers develop bad habits that are impossible to break without hypnotherapy. Sometimes we writing instructors feel like Sisyphus, our rock a red pen or grading rubric.

if this change signals a more general admission that the ability to produce good, sustained writing is no longer something we value in everyone seeking higher education, I’m hesitant to join the cheering crowd.

And yet, we try to succeed at this Sisyphean task, and we encourage students to do the same. It’s nearly a cliché in our field that “essay” derives from the French verb “essayer,” meaning “to try.” Essays are attempts at understanding. I’ve encountered quite a few students who have told me they’re just not good writers. I tell them that they have to shake that damaging label if they are to move. The only way is to keep writing. To keep trying.

What I’m saying, I’ll admit, might seem to have little to do with changes to the big, bad SAT. But it does have something to do with these changes, if only symbolically. In our Twitter-plagued world, where text messages have reduced communication to its ugly fetal state, our culture has signaled its willingness to give up on essay writing, or least on writing pieces that cannot be contained in 140 characters. We have surrendered to autocorrect, sometimes with cringe-inducing results. Restoring the essay portion of the SAT would not change anything in terms of this cultural shift, and I’m not advocating for its restoration. But if this change signals a more general admission that the ability to produce good, sustained writing is no longer something we value in everyone seeking higher education, I’m hesitant to join the cheering crowd.


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  • David Kimball

    To me, the issue is one of reaction vs reflection. In today’s society, reaction is favored over reflection. Kids are encouraged to be extroverts and to meet in groups of four or more and react and see who can garner the most laughs. How many kids sit down, one on one, and reflect on an issue. How many kids sit down and reflect on what to include in a letter? They are more prone to react to a Tweet or to try to capture Tweet reactions. How many kids reflect sufficiently to write an essay? They would rather react to a multiple choice question.

    I think we need to realize the value of reflection and to teach its skills and try to instill a desire in our young people to reflect and to also react.

  • Lawrence

    Just another example of the lost art of thinking. Americans are getting dumber by the day, can’t think for themselves and this proves. it. It’s no surprise that it was met with praise…. by the dumb kids who can’t write.

  • A parent

    I agree with the author. It is like saying “Oh some of us don’t know how to use a screw driver. So let us not bother using it anymore”.
    I have read one too many office email where I wished the sender thought through what they wanted to communicate.

  • dartmouth, MA

    Mr. Miller raises a few questions about the change in the essay writing portion of the S.A.T.. First, I wonder if the “optional” element of the essay be optional for some colleges? If so, then the choice is less optional for students, depending on what school they want to attend. Second, what are the criteria used to assess the essay? Is it about the content of the writing or its structure, grammar, spelling and mechanics? Finally, as Mr. Miller points out, and I have finally learned (well after college) if writing is about “trying” and revision, revision, revision, then how can one essay written in a short period of time really reflect the skill of the writer? I want someone who is willing to revise, not get it “right” in the first 45 minute draft. All assessments are flawed, but what is more flawed is the mindset that says we can summarize an education and ability in a single grade on a report or a single test score. The real cultural shift is to see learning as a whole, and include as many pieces of the learning puzzle so that educators can assess learning and see the whole picture. Keep the essay; it is one significant part of learning, however flawed its assessment on the S.A.T. is and will be.

  • Annie

    Most colleges already require an essay in their applications, which allows students more time to formulate a thoughtful essay and doesn’t require standardized testing-style grading. Why should an essay be included in a standardized test if it doesn’t measure any real quality?

  • Richard Hussong

    I have always presumed that the value of the essay portion of the SAT to colleges lay primarily in the fact that was known to be written by the student, not by a parent, friend, or essay-writing service. Maybe they should keep the essay portion, but not score it and simply make it available to schools upon request.

  • Jean

    You need to read about why they are taking out the essay. They are taking it out because analysis by English academics found that the essay was NOT about good writing. Learning how to score well on the essay was about learning how to write badly. No creativity. Volume over quality. “Recycling” the question as your intro sentence and your concluding sentence. One researcher found that if he taught students a few of what he called “tricks,” their scores on the essay question went from average to excellent immediately. Many college teachers say the first thing they have to do when they get a batch of new freshmen is to undo everything they’ve learned about writing from these tests.

  • Tanuge

    The quality and effectiveness of what I’m writing right now is a function of how much understanding it triggers in those who read it. It is, after all, communication, which by definition takes two to tango. If the College Board, as well as schools, are not willing to put up sufficient resources to have students’ writing subjectively and individually evaluated, then it is not really concerned with writing as a discipline and transferable skill. (In other words, the SAT essay really is worthless if the method of evaluating it is to run it through a Taiwanese sweat-shop of graders, who are expected to evaluate 20-30 essays per hour.)