ACT, SAT update features new essay-writing section

Monday, March 14, 2005 | 12:00 a.m. CST; updated 6:10 a.m. CDT, Saturday, July 12, 2008

As if college entrance exams were not stressful enough, the two biggest ones are being changed.

Both the SAT and the ACT will now include a written essay portion to help colleges make admissions decisions and determine at which level of English a student will be placed.

On Feb. 12, the first optional writing section was added to the American College Testing Program, or ACT, the more common standardized college entrance exam in the Midwest. According to the ACT’s Web site, the writing test measures skill in planning and writing a short essay.

Eighteen percent of colleges and universities surveyed by ACT have reported they will require a writing score from incoming students while 21 percent will recommend that students take the writing section, according to an ACT press release.

So far, only three schools in Missouri — Washington University, Evangel University and Linn State Technical College — will require the writing test as part of admission decisions for the fall 2006 semester. No school in the University of Missouri System will require the test or, at this point, recommend it, according to the ACT’s Web site.

Of the February test takers, 16 percent chose to take the optional writing portion, according to an ACT press release.

Few students took the writing portion in February because only about a quarter of the test takers were juniors. They would be the first students affected if schools decide to require the writing section, said an ACT spokesman.

ACT predicts about 75 percent of test takers in April and June will have just completed their junior year and will be more likely to take the writing portion for college admission.

The test can be taken as many times as the student wishes, but it costs $28 each time. The new writing section is a 30-minute timed paper and pencil essay that costs an additional $14.

Students are scored in four categories: math, reading, science and English. These four scores combined constitute the composite score, which can go as high as a 36.

For the writing portion, students are given a prompt “that will define an issue and describe two points of view on that issue,” according to

The students choose their points of view and explain them. The students’ essay scores will not be affected by the stance they take on the issue, according to the Web site.

The essay is graded on a scale of 1 through 6 and is calculated in the student’s English score.

An admissions counselor at Evangel University said the new tests will be used as a placement guide to determine at what level of English a student would start.

Admissions at MU are based on a “sliding scale between ACT scores and high school rank, as well as a core set of required high school classes — research shows it’s the best indicator of success (in college),” said Christian Basi, MU spokesman.

Basi said the university already has mechanisms in place to evaluate students’ writing and that administrators are happy with the situation.

The university requires all freshmen to complete an English composition class as well as two writing intensive courses sometime in their college career. The university re-evaluates its admissions program regularly and does not plan to add the writing portion of the ACT in its admissions decision any time soon, according to Basi.

Kimberly Girse, college guidance counselor at Rock Bridge High School, said she thinks the trend toward adopting the writing section as a requirement will “depend on who picks it up. If UM schools pick it up, it will probably trickle down (to other schools).”

Girse said high school core curriculum classes prepared students for the writing portion, “therefore we don’t advocate taking an expensive (preparatory) class.”

The Scholastic Aptitude Test, more commonly known as the SAT, also underwent changes, beginning with its test Saturday, according to SAT’s Web site,

The test added a student-written essay, shorter reading passages and new content from third-year college preparatory math. The analogies and quantitative comparisons were eliminated.

“The College Board changed the SAT to better reflect what students study in high school” as well as to “include writing, which is an important skill for success in college and beyond,” the SAT’s Web site said. The College Board stated its belief that the addition of the writing portion will “encourage and support the teaching of writing at every grade level.”

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