Talk Story


Will Hawaii students
have the write stuff?

IN A MOVE likely to spread fear and loathing through Hawaii public high schools, the College Board has leaked plans to make major changes in the SAT I test.

Required by most U.S. colleges, the SAT is a symbol "for all the anxieties and concerns, fears and frustrations involved in today's college admission system," says Lee Bollinger, University of Michigan president.

Starting with the class of 2005, students will face tougher math problems, longer reading passages and -- horrors! -- a writing exam. This will include 20 minutes to write an essay and 40 minutes of multiple-choice questions on grammar, usage and composition.

The entire test will be 30 minutes longer -- a full 31/2 hours -- and cost $10 more (the current fee is $26). The perfect total score possible will jump from 1,600 to 2,400. Math will count only a third instead of half.

The College Board will send scanned images of the handwritten essays to colleges that request them. This isn't good news for today's high-school seniors used to typing on computers with spelling and grammar checkers. It's particularly bad news for Hawaii students who generally get satisfactory scores in math but don't measure up on the verbal exam.

WHY CHANGE the SAT? The short answer is that the huge University of California system threatened to drop it as an admission requirement.

Critics say the test favors males and children of upper-income families. They want an exam tied closer to what's actually taught in the classroom and argue an essay will demonstrate how students can handle papers they'll be assigned in college.

Only one-quarter of American students write at their school grade level, according to a U.S. Department of Education test of fourth, eighth and 12th graders, and 17 percent of incoming freshmen are forced to take remedial writing classes.

WHAT KIND of essay questions will test takers get? The SAT II writing test that's already required by some schools offers a taste:

>> Nothing requires more discipline than freedom. Discuss.

>> The greatest griefs are those we cause ourselves. Choose an example and discuss whether you agree or disagree with this statement.

>> I have learned many valuable things that have helped me in life, but one thing that was especially valuable was ...

If these sound like the questions emcees ask beauty pageant finalists, it's no surprise. The purpose is the same -- to separate the best and brightest from those for whom "ending world hunger" is the only answer to life's important questions.

BRIGHT STUDENTS should be able to ace the essay with good preparation and practice. Writing isn't rocket science, obviously, or would I be doing it?

The best preparation is to "be an adept, careful, subtle, insightful reader." UM's Bollinger says. "Read as much as you can, write a lot, learn to use language effectively, take hard courses and solve problems in and out of school. Think."

Experts advise simplicity. Use declarative sentences --subject, verb, predicate. Take five minutes to plan what to say, then write a theme-setting introductory paragraph, back it up with three or four paragraphs of examples and wrap up with a conclusion. Colleges want competent expression, not the Gettysburg Address.

While essayists can be bold and take stands, being overly creative is a no-no. An admissions officer plowing through thousands of essays to weed out the academically challenged isn't the best audience for experiments in blank verse, haiku or pidgin.

An army of 1,000 readers, mostly high school and college teachers recruited from across the country, will read electronic images of the essays and grade them quickly. The College Board says they'll still have the scores ready in two weeks.

Two dreadful weeks.

John Flanagan is the Star-Bulletin's contributing editor.
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