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California, kill the SAT and ACT essay

California, kill the SAT and ACT essay
High school test takers. (Los Angeles Times)

Every year more than a million students pay an extra fee to do the optional essay section of the SAT and ACT, though according to a Princeton Review analysis only 27 colleges and universities in the country require submission of an essay score. Half of those 27 schools are in California, which means the Golden State is well-positioned to put an end to what is a huge waste of time and money for millions of high school students and their parents each year. In March, Harvard announced that it will no longer require the SAT essay; Dartmouth did the same thing Monday. Now the University of California and Stanford should kill off these tests once and for all.

Having students write an essay as part of the SAT and ACT sounds like a good idea. The ability to write matters a great deal in school and beyond, and many students are ill-prepared to write with the frequency and sophistication college studies require. The ACT essay test asks students to take a position on an issue. The SAT asks them to write a rhetorical analysis of a published argument.

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The problem is that students' scores on these exercises don't indicate much about how they will perform in the classroom, which is what these tests are supposed to reveal. When the College Board redesigned the SAT and made the essay optional in 2016, it admitted as much: "While the College Board remains steadfast in its commitment to the importance of analytic writing for all students . . . one single essay historically has not contributed significantly to the overall predictive power of the exam."

It is no surprise, then, that so few colleges require the SAT and ACT essays or that, even among those that do, there is little indication that any of them use the essay to determine whether to accept an applicant.

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And yet 1.2 million students in the Class of 2017 dutifully wrote at least one SAT essay, and about 1.1 million did the ACT essay. The essay takers made up 70% of those who sat for the SAT, and 53% of those who took the ACT. We surmise that the numbers are so high because too many students are unsure whether the colleges they apply to will want it. They take it just in case.

It's a costly "just in case," especially in aggregate.

The total amount of money spent on taking the essay tests isn't easy to calculate — many students take these tests multiple times, and neither the College Board nor ACT publicly talks about how much they take in each year on essay tests alone. But we can do some rough math.

There are no published studies showing that the tests are valid for assessing state writing standards.


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It costs as much as $14 to add the essay portion to the SAT, and as much as $16.50 to add it to the ACT, on top of the $46 for each test. The test makers absorb some or all of the costs for low-income students, about 20% of test takers. If 20% of the Class of 2017's essay-test takers paid absolutely nothing to the College Board and to ACT, the companies still would have collected more than $25 million for an educational measurement almost no college wants and even fewer use.

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Those millions are not coming just from students' families. In more than half the states, the SAT or ACT is offered during school hours and the states' taxpayers foot the bill, at full fare for some students and at discounted rates for low-income students. "School day" testing is smart public policy — research shows that offering in-school, free-to-the-student exams increases the number of students who attend college.

But it's not smart for states to pay for the extra essay section. Thirteen states add that cost to their testing, and in 10 of them — Alabama, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Nevada, North Dakota, Utah, Wisconsin and Wyoming — there are no schools that require the SAT or ACT essay.

Some states may pay to include the essay portion because they are required to test writing skills in their 11th grade assessments. But, just as there is no evidence that the SAT and ACT essay are good predictors of college performance, there are no published studies showing that the tests are valid for assessing state writing standards. In fact, a recent report argues that the exams' "lack of alignment with states' college- and career-ready standards means that they are not the assessments to use for accountability purposes."

The California Legislature is considering AB 1951, which would require the state superintendent to select the SAT or ACT as a replacement for PARCC tests that are now administered to all high school juniors (PARCC stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers). Because so many 11th graders need and want to take the SAT or the ACT (or both) for their college applications, eliminating the PARCC assessment would streamline the testing regimen for schools and ease students' test-anxiety levels as well. But the choice should be between the SAT or the ACT without the essay test.

Unfortunately, that bit of streamlining will never happen as long as California schools demand the essay score for admittance, especially the behemoth UC system and Stanford.

For the sake of the state budget and families' private pocketbooks, and for high schoolers in California and across the country who have enough testing worries without the useless essay, the SAT and ACT writing test should be dropped. California, you have the power: Kill the essays.

James Murphy is the director of national outreach for the college admissions test prep service the Princeton Review.

Follow the Opinion section on Twitter @latimesopinion and Facebook

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