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December 2012 Sat Essay

This March, the new SAT will debut. The sweeping changes to it include a return to a 1600-point grading scale; the elimination of a penalty for wrong answers (previously minus ¼ point each); and the removal of “SAT words,” though the new test will still test students’ vocabulary. The test will now combine the reading and writing parts into one section.

Perhaps the greatest and most unfortunate change is that the essay is now optional. Previously, each test-taker had 25 minutes to write an essay on a given prompt. The prompt tended to be broad and subjective. The December 2015 SAT essay, for example, asked students, “Is it dangerous to look up to role models and heroes?” because they may fail or betray their admirers’ trust. Students were told to structure an essay “in which you develop your point of view on this issue,” using logical reasoning and evidence gathered from their “reading, studies, experience, or observations.”

The new essay is optional and graded separately from the other two sections, scored on a scale from 1 to 4 points in three categories (Reading, Analysis, and Writing). The time limit has doubled (from 25 minutes to 50), and so has the available writing space (from two pages to four). Instead of a prompt with questions, students will be given a passage to read and analyze. After reading the given passage, they are to “explain how the author builds an argument to persuade an audience” and defend their explanations “with evidence from the passage.” One practice test for the new SAT prompts the essay-writer to evaluate the language Jimmy Carter uses to convince his readers that we should not drill for oil in the Arctic Refuge coastal plains in Alaska. Students are not supposed to take a position agreeing or disagreeing with Carter, but simply to explain his rhetoric.

According to the College Board, changing the test and sidelining the essay is important to keep the test “relevant” to college and career life: “One of our biggest goals in changing the SAT is to make sure it’s highly relevant to your future success. The new test will be more focused on the skills and knowledge at the heart of education.” The new SAT “will focus on the knowledge and skills that current research shows are most essential for college and career readiness and success.” The test aims to “measure what you learn in high school” and “what you need to succeed in college.”

The College Board used similar language back in 2002 when it announced that it would add an essay to the SAT in 2005. The University of California was the primary force behind the change – in 2001, the school threatened that the state would drop its SAT requirement, “saying that fewer freshmen were prepared for the more intense writing requirements of college,” according to NBC News. UC President Richard C. Atkinson said in a 2001 speech that he did not think the SAT assessed what students in California were taught in school and suggested that UC should “require only standardized tests that assess mastery of specific subject areas rather than undefined notions of ‘aptitude’ or ‘intelligence,’” according to the Los Angeles Times. Caren Scoropanos, a spokesperson for the College Board, told NBC News that the decision to add the essay was made so that “writing will become more of a priority across the United States."

Despite calls for change, the SAT essay component received significant criticism when it was first added, and today many colleges have chosen not to require the essay for applications. A recent survey by Kaplan Test Prep found that of 300 colleges and universities surveyed, only 13 percent required the essay. Two-thirds of those surveyed chose to remain neutral. In July, the University of Pennsylvania announced that it would not require the essay portions of the SAT or ACT for its admissions process. Cornell and Columbia, among other top schools, also opted to not require the essay. Even at the University of California, which had pushed for the writing component, the admissions department has said it does not use the essay to evaluate applicants. “It’s not used in any step of the process,” Susan Wilbur, director of undergraduate admissions, told the Times.

While the number of colleges deciding not to use the essay portion continues to rise, it seems clear that in principle the essay ought to be helpful for both admissions staff and students. The ability to write cannot be measured through a series of multiple-choice questions. In that format students can increase their chances by weeding out some of the wrong answers (and now that there is no penalty for choosing incorrectly, even guessing is a viable option), but when confronted with a blank page they must start from square one.

Writing is a crucial part of the collegiate experience, as the College Board acknowledges. College students write personal essays, research papers, and senior theses, and these assignments make up a significant portion of their grades. Making the SAT optional means that unless colleges start independently testing students’ writing, some colleges will admit students without gauging their writing abilities.

Writing well is a good indicator of other skills. Students who can write carefully argued essays are also thoughtful and observant readers. They pay attention to grammar, vocabulary, tone, and style. Practicing such attention will serve them well in their careers and throughout their lives.

The College Board claims to recognize the importance of writing: “The College Board remains steadfast in its commitment to the importance of analytical writing for all students. The SAT Essay has been reimagined to closely reflect the analytical writing that will be required of students throughout their college experience.” But if the essay is optional, how strongly committed can the College Board be?

The College Board’s clearest rationale for this change is that “While the writing work that students do in the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing section of the exam is strongly predictive of college and career readiness and success, one single essay historically has not contributed significantly to the overall predictive power of the exam.” Additionally, “Feedback from hundreds of member admission officers was divided: Some of them found the current essay useful, but many did not.”

Perhaps the prior essay structure – with less time, less space, and a more open-ended prompt – curbed the exam’s predictive power. Critics said the essay was too subjective and personal. Students could lie or misremember facts used as evidence. In “The SAT Upgrade Is a Big Mistake,” NAS president Peter Wood wrote that the essay was “a decade-long experiment in awarding points for sloppy writing graded by mindless formulae.”

But the newly designed essay would fix some of the old essay’s problems. It requires students to analyze and make evidence-based arguments. The requirements are more stringent and students are given a narrower focus – the passage – rather than an overbroad, loose prompt followed by questions.

Well-structured and analytical writing is an important part of college, and removing the SAT essay requirement does not seem to help students or colleges in measuring a student’s academic aptitude.

Photo Credit: The College Matchmaker

How the SAT Essay Is Scored

Responses to the optional SAT Essay are scored using a carefully designed process.

  • Two different people will read and score your essay.
  • Each scorer awards 1–4 points for each dimension: reading, analysis, and writing.
  • The two scores for each dimension are added.
  • You’ll receive three scores for the SAT Essay—one for each dimension—ranging from 2–8 points.
  • There is no composite SAT Essay score (the three scores are not added together) and there are no percentiles.

We train every scorer to hold every student to the same standards, the ones shown on this page.

Quick Links

Reading Scoring Guide

Analysis Scoring Guide

Writing Scoring Guide

Score of 4

  • Demonstrates thorough comprehension of the source text.
  • Shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) and of most important details and how they interrelate, demonstrating a comprehensive understanding of the text.
  • Is free of errors of fact or interpretation with regard to the text.
  • Makes skillful use of textual evidence (quotations, paraphrases, or both), demonstrating a complete understanding of the source text.

Score of 3

  • Demonstrates effective comprehension of the source text.
  • Shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) and important details.
  • Is free of substantive errors of fact and interpretation with regard to the text.
  • Makes appropriate use of textual evidence (quotations, paraphrases, or both), demonstrating an understanding of the source text.

Score of 2

  • Demonstrates some comprehension of the source text.
  • Shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) but not of important details.
  • May contain errors of fact and/or interpretation with regard to the text.
  • Makes limited and/or haphazard use of textual evidence (quotations, paraphrases, or both), demonstrating some understanding of the source text.

Score of 1

  • Demonstrates little or no comprehension of the source text.
  • Fails to show an understanding of the text’s central idea(s), and may include only details without reference to central idea(s).
  • May contain numerous errors of fact and/or interpretation with regard to the text.
  • Makes little or no use of textual evidence (quotations, paraphrases, or both), demonstrating little or no understanding of the source text.

Score of 4

  • Offers an insightful analysis of the source text and demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the analytical task.
  • Offers a thorough, well-considered evaluation of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s own choosing.
  • Contains relevant, sufficient, and strategically chosen support for claim(s) or point(s) made.
  • Focuses consistently on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task.

Score of 3

  • Offers an effective analysis of the source text and demonstrates an understanding of the analytical task.
  • Competently evaluates the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s own choosing.
  • Contains relevant and sufficient support for claim(s) or point(s) made.
  • Focuses primarily on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task.

Score of 2

  • Offers limited analysis of the source text and demonstrates only partial understanding of the analytical task.
  • Identifies and attempts to describe the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s own choosing, but merely asserts rather than explains their importance, or one or more aspects of the response’s analysis are unwarranted based on the text.
  • Contains little or no support for claim(s) or point(s) made.
  • May lack a clear focus on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task.

Score of 1

  • Offers little or no analysis or ineffective analysis of the source text and demonstrates little or no understanding of the analytic task.
  • Identifies without explanation some aspects of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s choosing.
  • Or numerous aspects of the response’s analysis are unwarranted based on the text.
  • Contains little or no support for claim(s) or point(s) made, or support is largely irrelevant.
  • May not focus on features of the text that are relevant to addressing the task.
  • Or the response offers no discernible analysis (e.g., is largely or exclusively summary).

Score of 4

  • Is cohesive and demonstrates a highly effective use and command of language.
  • Includes a precise central claim.
  • Includes a skillful introduction and conclusion. The response demonstrates a deliberate and highly effective progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay.
  • Has a wide variety in sentence structures. The response demonstrates a consistent use of precise word choice. The response maintains a formal style and objective tone.
  • Shows a strong command of the conventions of standard written English and is free or virtually free of errors.

Score of 3

  • Is mostly cohesive and demonstrates effective use and control of language.
  • Includes a central claim or implicit controlling idea.
  • Includes an effective introduction and conclusion. The response demonstrates a clear progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay.
  • Has variety in sentence structures. The response demonstrates some precise word choice. The response maintains a formal style and objective tone.
  • Shows a good control of the conventions of standard written English and is free of significant errors that detract from the quality of writing.

Score of 2

  • Demonstrates little or no cohesion and limited skill in the use and control of language.
  • May lack a clear central claim or controlling idea or may deviate from the claim or idea over the course of the response.
  • May include an ineffective introduction and/or conclusion. The response may demonstrate some progression of ideas within paragraphs but not throughout the response.
  • Has limited variety in sentence structures; sentence structures may be repetitive.
  • Demonstrates general or vague word choice; word choice may be repetitive. The response may deviate noticeably from a formal style and objective tone.
  • Shows a limited control of the conventions of standard written English and contains errors that detract from the quality of writing and may impede understanding.

Score of 1

  • Demonstrates little or no cohesion and inadequate skill in the use and control of language.
  • May lack a clear central claim or controlling idea.
  • Lacks a recognizable introduction and conclusion. The response does not have a discernible progression of ideas.
  • Lacks variety in sentence structures; sentence structures may be repetitive. The response demonstrates general and vague word choice; word choice may be poor or inaccurate. The response may lack a formal style and objective tone.
  • Shows a weak control of the conventions of standard written English and may contain numerous errors that undermine the quality of writing.

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