In a long-requested but nonetheless surprising move, the SAT will no longer include an essay portion, announced the College Board on Tuesday. The essay portion of the test, which is a fifth section that purportedly measures a student’s writing ability, will only be offered through June of this year. With only a handful of tests scheduled between now and then (March, May, and June for most students), the SAT essay will no longer be offered for anyone in just a few months.
Why is this a surprise?
This announcement comes as a surprise to many tutors. While the College Board has been hinting at updating its testing procedures and measures for the past few years, the SAT was changed drastically only a few years ago. We here assumed that the changes (which, to be fair, were sorely needed) would be minor until the next major update to the test, which we expected sometime in the next five years. It seems that the COVID-19 pandemic and difficult testing situation has prompted the College Board to make many changes to its testing procedures in order to accommodate the changing college admissions landscape.
Furthermore, the College Board announced that further changes would be coming to the test, including a digital administration. While no information is available about this big change currently, more information should be available in the coming months. Tutors, myself included, have been predicting this move since last March, when many tests were canceled. However, we expected the College Board to follow the ACT’s lead and announce digital testing in the fall of last year, instead of waiting until early 2021. Perhaps technical difficulties or logistical problems delayed the announcement until now? In either case, the paired announcements of the SAT essay no longer being offered and a digital testing solution are good news for students.
Why is this a good thing?
We are not fans of the SAT essay. While some of us do think the essay questions were marginally improved after the major restructuring a few years ago, we’re all happy to see it go. The basic task of writing an essay that analyzes an argument isn’t really a problem, on its own–on the contrary, that’s an important skill. But a hastily-written essay on a never-before seen topic is not a good way to measure that. In fact, many colleges agree, recognizing that the admissions essays that students write are a much better measure of writing and reasoning ability. If they want to know how a student writes, why not just look at the much more consistent and higher-quality admissions essay?
There’s also the issue of the rubric: the grading system for the SAT essay task was confusing and often arbitrary. It was never clear exactly how to get the score that you wanted, clear writing goals were never given, and even the sample essays the College Board provided varied wildly in how closely they met the requirements of the rubric. Getting rid of the essay entirely is a pretty good way to solve this “inconsistent rubric” problem for good!
What does this mean for the ACT?
One of the first questions we asked each other as tutors when we saw the news about the SAT essay no longer being offered is “what does this mean for the ACT essay”? Our conclusion is yes: the ACT will likely also drop the essay section, probably very soon. With how closely related the two tests are in terms of planning logistics, and use in college admissions, the SAT and ACT are in direct competition. If the ACT wants to stay competitive, it will need to follow the SAT’s example and drop the essay portion of the test. It’s possible that the ACT might keep the essay portion of the test precisely because the SAT doesn’t provide it; however, even if this is the case, we expect the essay will become an entirely optional, specific-use-only part of the test.
Keep in mind this is speculation, and nothing is confirmed yet. However, we’ll make sure to keep you up to date with the latest!