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The College Board’s decision on Jan. 19, 2021 to eliminate the essay portion of the SAT may have delighted millions of current and future high school students but its discontinuation could also be a loss for students of color and those whose primary language isn’t English.
“The essay may actually have been particularly helpful for predicting the college success of disadvantaged students,” said Jack Buckley, a former head of research at the College Board, via email. “Ironic that, at a time when standardized testing is under immense pressure not only due to the pandemic but also from the anti-racist movement, CB [College Board] would discontinue a feature of their flagship college entrance examination that their own research argues helped level the playing field.”
Buckley’s opinion carries special weight because he helped lead the 2016 redesign of the SAT. He was also the commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics in the Department of Education for three years during the Obama Administration. He is currently the head of assessment and learning sciences at Roblox, an online gaming company.
I was surprised that the essay, an optional part of the SAT test, can be an asset on the college application for many disadvantaged students because these students often struggle with writing. However, a 2019 study by the College Board, the organization that owns and earns revenue from the SAT, detailed how the essay portion increased the ability to predict how well an applicant would do in college English and writing classes. For some groups of students — those whose best language was not English alone and those who identified as Black, Latino, Asian or multiracial — the essay score improved the ability to predict how well the applicant would do in college English and writing classes by more than 30 percent above knowing only the student’s high school grades and verbal SAT score (currently called Evidence-based Reading and Writing or ERW).
It’s a long-running debate whether standardized exams, such as the SAT, provide useful information about a college applicant. A consistent body of research has found that high school grades are more predictive of how a student will do in college. This research has found that students with high grades and low test scores tend to succeed in college more than students with low grades and high test scores. More disadvantaged students might be admitted to selective colleges and succeed there if test scores were ignored or minimized.
In response, testing companies have conducted research to prove that the combination of grades and test scores is important by calculating that the two together are best at predicting first year college performance. This 2019 College Board technical report, “Validity of SAT® Essay Scores for Predicting First-Year Grades,” went one step further, adding the essay to the mix of high school grades and verbal SAT test scores and comparing the three with students’ subsequent college grades.
The College Board researchers tracked more than 180,000 students who graduated high school in 2017 and entered a four-year college that fall. They found that the essay scores and verbal test scores can diverge. Students with verbal test scores of 400 or lower who had above average essay scores could still have a greater than 80 percent chance of passing a college English or writing class. An admissions officer might reject that student based on test scores alone. However, the College Board report emphasized the opposite scenario, finding that, for example, a student with an average 500 verbal score but a very low essay score would only have a 68 percent probability of passing college English.
“As the nation’s student population becomes more diverse,” the College Board researchers wrote, “institutions may find that the SAT Essay scores add even greater value over time, particularly for identifying students who may struggle with the writing skills needed to be successful in college.”
Despite the testing industry’s efforts to prove the usefulness of their tests, colleges have moved away from requiring them. Beginning with the University of Chicago in 2018, the test optional movement has accelerated during the pandemic and has now ballooned to more than 1,000 colleges and universities.
The College Board may be nervous about the future of its flagship product. In a statement, the organization explained that it was eliminating the essay along with 20 separate subject tests to “reduce and simplify” demands on students. It added that there are other ways for students to demonstrate their writing ability and that the reading and writing test that lives on is still among the “most predictive” parts of the SAT.
The SAT first added an essay in 2005 because college admissions officers wanted to see authentic writing samples from students. In 2016, the free response essay was revamped into a written analysis of a text, akin to a college assignment, and made optional.
Meanwhile, the College Board’s business model was changing as it won lucrative statewide contracts to test all students at school. The optional essay portion was generally not included in these free in-school SAT tests. Students who wanted to apply to a college that required or recommended the essay still had to register and pay for a weekend test.
Many argued that the hassle of getting to a testing center and applying for a fee waiver was burdensome for low-income students — the opposite of expanding college access. Colleges started dropping the essay, even before dropping the SAT entirely. Still, more than half, or 57 percent, of the 2.2 million students who took the SAT last year opted to complete the essay portion.
The essay is an expensive part of the exam to administer, far more laborious than scanning a bubble sheet from a multiple choice test. Each hand-written essay is read by two human graders and given a numerical mark in each of three categories, for a total of six marks per essay. The College Board charges only $16 more for the optional essay portion. When I questioned whether the essay portion was a money loser for College Board, spokesman Jerome White replied by email that the essay has a “positive economic impact” and the decision to discontinue it is a “mission-based decision.”
It’s not often that I feel sympathy for the College Board. But in this case, the organization created an essay to respond to the demands of college admissions officers, tried to improve the essay to make it more like a college writing assignment, then found evidence that the essay was actually most useful for assessing disadvantaged students. But apparently, business realities and anti-testing sentiment got in the way.
This story about the SAT essay was written by Jill Barshay and produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.