While high school grades remain the single best indicator of how successful a student will be in college, a new study finds that of all the sections on the SAT, the writing section is the best predictor of academic success. The College Board decided in 2002 to roll what used to be the SAT II writing subject test into the SAT I, which now contains both an essay and a multiple choice grammar review.
I am a total writing triumphalist, but I’m a bit surprised the SAT essay section has proven to be so predictive. The topics students are asked to write about on the exam do not at all reflect the typical college assignment. The SAT prompts personal essays on broad, amorphous topics, not exercises in building an argument through carefully engaging with competing evidence. That’s why I’ve always been a fan of the "Document Based Question," which New York State uses on its Regents examinations. Those essays give students a number of primary sources around which to build an argument. For comparison’s sake, here’s an example of an SAT writing prompt:
Being loyal—faithful or dedicated to someone or something—is not always easy. People often have conflicting loyalties, and there are no guidelines that help them decide to what or whom they should be loyal. Moreover, people are often loyal to something bad. Still, loyalty is one of the essential attributes a person must have and must demand of others.
Adapted from James Carville, Stickin’: The Case for Loyalty
Assignment: Should people always be loyal? Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations.
Now a really engaged (and privileged) high school kid, one who might even know who James Carville is, could use this prompt to write about the presidential race. But most students will write about friendships, relationships on athletic teams, and other examples of loyalty in their personal lives. If they do so grammatically, include an introduction and conclusion, and begin their paragraphs with topic sentences, they will potentially ace this section of the exam. The sad fact is, most American high school students can’t do even that. And that’s not a problem, of course, that can be solved at the college level.
cross-posted at TAPPED