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More Colleges Will Require Writing Tests of Future Freshmen

More Colleges Will Require Writing Tests of Future Freshmen


A growing number of colleges will require future applicants to take a standardized writing test, even though some admissions officials question the value of such tests.

Penn State University, which receives 50,000 undergraduate applications each year, announced last month that it would require students applying for admission in 2006 and thereafter to complete either the SAT or ACT writing test.

“What this measure will be giving us, maybe for the first time, is an opportunity to be able to gauge the readiness to engage in effective writing of students as they walk in the door as freshmen to the university,” says John J. Romano, Penn State’s vice provost and dean of enrollment management and administration.

Penn State’s requirement is made possible by changes at the two major testing organizations. The College Board, which administers the SAT, announced last summer it would add a mandatory writing test to its exam starting in 2005. ACT, formerly American College Testing, announced it would offer an optional writing test in 2004.

Big universities such as California, Texas and Penn State have been among the first to require the test, but admissions officials say they won’t be the last.

“I think as you see the Penn States and the Texases jump on line, it’s like a house of cards then,” says Mike Williams, assistant vice president of admissions and financial aid at Harding University in Searcy, Ark. “To say you’re not going to require it, that almost positions your institution as second-tier — that maybe writing is not as important at your institution. And certainly we don’t want to send that perception.”

Although many admissions officials think most schools will require a standardized writing test, they also raise concerns about the value of such tests and worry that college-bound students are stressed enough by current tests.

Many schools already require applicants to submit some form of writing sample; using a standardized writing test will add an estimated $10 to $12 to the cost of test-taking while favoring a certain type of writer.

“They’ll help those who can write under pressure and will hurt those who cannot,” says Ray Brown, dean of admissions at Texas Christian in Fort Worth, which will require either the SAT or ACT written test. “Many very good writers are good largely because they can take time to write, then rewrite, drafts before generating a final product.”

Among the most vocal critics is Robert Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, a group opposed to standardized tests.

“It’s quite silly,” Schaeffer says. “If this form of formulaic writing was so important, why did Penn State not require applicants to take the SAT II writing test previously? It was available. Very few colleges, about 35, required it.

“What happened is that the College Board has repackaged their product and the ACT has followed suit … and found a way to get more students to take a test that colleges didn’t find useful enough to require previously.”

Kristin Carnahan, a spokeswoman for the College Board, disputes that. She says the College Board considered adding a writing test as early as 1994, but that technology did not yet support the electronic distribution of many thousands of essays.

The new writing test will be similar to the SAT II, with sections for correcting sentences and a written essay, but Carnahan said it wouldn’t be the same test.

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