All about the SAT Essay

Discontinuation of Essay in 2021

In June 2021, the College Board made the decision to discontinue the Essay section of the SAT. According to the College Board, this decision was not made lightly and was the result of two important factors.

First, due to the Covid-19 pandemic that began in 2020, administering the SAT became a logistical nightmare. During this unprecedented event, schools turned to remote learning in order to practice the social distancing guidelines put into place by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention or a similar government health organization. Schools struggled to return to in-person learning, caught in a seemingly endless cycle of reopening, seeing a rise in Covid cases, and returning to distance learning again. At the same time, testing centers were challenged with how to administer a proctored exam while following health-related guidelines about closeness and the number of people who could safely be in a building at the same time. In response to the very real difficulties associated with taking the SAT, the majority of colleges and universities in the United States dropped the requirement to submit SAT scores as part of a complete application, choosing to be "test optional" or "test blind" until a given date years into the future. The College Board noted how difficult 2020-2021 had been on students and hoped that by dropping the Essay requirement, they could "reduce demands on students."

A second factor that contributed to the discontinuation of the SAT Essay was the fact that, even pre-2020, many colleges and universities simply did not require an SAT Essay score as part of a student's application. According to available College Board data, only 57% of all SAT test takers in 2020 completed the optional Essay portion of the test, suggesting that the Essay section was not considered a "make or break" aspect of the SAT on the level of sectional scores. The College Board maintains that writing is essential for college readiness and success, and they remain confident the exam offers other ways for students to demonstrate their understanding and mastery of college readiness-level writing.

The information below is included for archival reasons, should anyone wish to know more about the history of the SAT Essay.

Introduction of Optional Essay in 2016

New SAT Essay

The 2016 SAT includes an essay section that has been significantly redesigned. Students are no longer required to complete the essay, but many universities mandate the submission of essay scores, and the College Board recommends that all students take this section of the SAT in order to demonstrate reading, writing, and analysis skills. The time given for the essay has been doubled to 50 minutes, and the essay task is now focused on analysis of an argument rather than taking a position on an issue. Students write a single essay based on a prompt that is largely consistent across all administrations of the SAT.

Motives for SAT Essay Redesign

The College Board cites the need to separate essay writing from other verbal skills and institutional desire for more specific essay scoring criteria as the major reasons for the SAT essay redesign, but popular criticism was certainly also a factor. Opponents of the old SAT essay saw the assessment as a poor and somewhat arbitrary predictor of college success. These criticisms were to some degree supported by independent research. One study, for example, found a strong correlation between essay length and score.

SAT Essay Prompt

The essay prompt for the 2016 SAT asks students to analyze a text that is between 650 and 750 words in length. All essay reading passages are argumentative, intended for general readerships, and taken from historical or contemporary sources. Student essays must consider author use of evidence to support claims, reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims, and stylistic and persuasive elements such as word choice or appeals to emotion. In their essays, students should analyze the argument advanced in the reading passage rather than write about their own views on the subject. The consistent nature of the essay prompt means that test-takers will know the basic essay task in advance, although they will not know the particular reading passage ahead of time. This change can be seen as an attempt to more closely align the SAT essay with the types of essays that are written on college exams.

SAT Essay Scoring

The 2016 SAT essay is scored separately from the Evidence-Based Reading and Writing and Math sections. Three scores are given: Reading, Analysis, and Writing. Each of these will be on a scale of 2-8. Two scorers read each essay independently and provide a score of 1 to 4 in each area. A score of 4 is considered "Advanced," while 1 is "Inadequate." Evaluation criteria include comprehension of essay reading passages, analysis and explanation of argument, and effectiveness of essay writing.

SAT Essay Preparation

Student preparation should emphasize analytical skills with respect to written texts in a broad range of general-interest publications. An experienced SAT tutor can provide relevant reading lists, understanding of how the SAT essay is scored, differentiated instruction in terms of essay-writing skill development, and assessment of progress. Informed sources generally agree that private SAT preparation is superior to self-study methods or pre-recorded video instruction due to the presence of a live teacher.

SAT Essay Purpose and Supporting Research

The SAT Essay is meant to combine with the Writing and Language Test to provide a broad assessment of writing skills. College Board goals that are relevant to the SAT Essay include "an emphasis on source analysis and use of evidence," "attention to a core set of important English language conventions and to effective written expression," and "text complexity aligned to college and career readiness levels of reading." Research has shown that college texts are much more difficult than most of the materials that students encounter in high school. A 2009 study demonstrated a steady and lengthy decline in the complexity of texts used at the secondary level, and College Board data on SAT scores verify that too few students are graduating from high school with the verbal skills required by college courses. According to College Board surveys, postsecondary instructors consider textual analysis to be one of the most essential of college-level skills. Studies also indicate that writing abilities cannot be acquired through direct instruction alone; opportunities for regular practice must be included. The new SAT Essay aims to address these issues and improve on older writing assessments that many educators saw as arbitrary in terms of evaluation criteria and less than ideal with respect to pedagogical or predictive value.

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