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30 on ACT? Let's see if you can write

October 17, 2004

BY DAVE NEWBART Staff Reporter Fed up with the poor quality of student writing, some universities for the first time are demanding to know: Can Johnny write?

The schools are adding essay questions to their applications. They are reading applicants' writing samples more closely. And they are requiring or recommending new standardized writing exams.

"We are hoping high schools will pay more attention to writing,'' said Carol Lunkenheimer, dean of undergraduate admission at Northwestern University.

Too many students show up on campus with poor writing skills, officials say.

Next fall, applicants to the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign will be under closer scrutiny than ever before: They must write more about their experiences and their values, and reviewers will read essays more closely. In the past, most admissions were based on test scores and grades.

SAMPLE QUESTIONS

Next spring, the SAT and ACT will ask students to compose the first draft of an essay on deadline.
*SAT 25-minute mandatory essay: Gives students a quote or thought, such as "A sense of happiness and fulfillment, not personal gain, is the best motivation and reward for one's achievements.'' Asks students to agree or disagree, and to support their position with "examples taken from your reading, studies, experience or observations.''
*ACT 30-minute optional essay: Gives students two sides of an issue, such as whether schools should adopt dress codes. Asks students to take a point of view and support it with "reasons and examples.''
SOURCE: SAT and ACT sample questions.

"In order to be competitive here, students need to work on their writing,'' said Stanley Henderson, the school's associate provost for enrollment management.

Indeed, "the level of freshman writing around the country is extremely poor,'' said Stanley Fish, former dean of liberal arts and sciences at U. of I.'s Chicago campus.

Fish, who teaches freshman composition, said self-expression and content have trumped grammar and language mastery in the classroom in recent years.

"They've mistaken the goal of a writing class, which is not to produce students with the same political or social views as you have but to produce students in command of verbal skills,'' he said.

In addition, educators say that in the push to improve students' reading and math skills, writing has become de-emphasized at some schools.

Other state schools are following U. of I.'s lead. For the first time, applicants to Northern and Eastern universities will have the option of writing a personal statement to enhance their chances of admission. In addition to improving writing, having students submit an essay will allow a more holistic review of applicants, necessary in the wake of a Supreme Court ruling on affirmative action that required more thorough evaluations, officials said.

Naperville's Deepika Chitturi, 17, a student in Fish's composition course, says strong writing programs "definitely pay off.''

"No matter where you work, you are going to have to write in some form or another,'' said Chitturi, 17, a bioengineering major.

Even private schools that have long required application essays are getting more picky. Northwestern will require students to submit results from the new writing sections on the ACT and SAT when they are offered next year.

Northern, Eastern and U. of I. are recommending students take the written section of the ACT.

Henderson said the main reason U. of I. isn't requiring the test is because it's not included in the ACT now given by the state to all high school seniors as part of the Prairie State Exam. Whether that will change is unclear: In a cost-cutting move last session, the Legislature passed a law excluding writing from the test. Educators said that sends the wrong message to students and high schools.

State Sen. Miguel del Valle, chairman of the Senate Education Committee, says he plans to introduce legislation next year that would reinstate the writing test.

Writing on deadline for college exams 'freaking people out' Back to top

BY ROSALIND ROSSI Education Reporter

Kids weaned on writing and rewriting essays over days or even weeks will soon be asked to write on deadline for college admission exams -- driving some right into the arms of test prep coaches.

Both the ACT and SAT are adding writing tests this spring, prompting a boom business for Kaplan and the Princeton Review, where test prep can cost up to $899.

The SAT writing exam is one of several changes to that test, while the new ACT writing test is optional. But it's the deadline writing demands of both exams that seem to be causing the most angst.

"It's definitely freaking people out,'' said Kristin Crowson, marketing coordinator for the Princeton Review -- Midwest. "Students, when they think, 'I have to write an impromptu essay,' it's definitely scary.''

That may be why twice as many kids as usual took Princeton's free SAT practice tests this spring. Meanwhile, at Kaplan's Chicago area office, August enrollment was up 30 percent over last year.

Yet such top high schools as Chicago's Northside College Prep and Winnetka's New Trier say they don't plan on changing their curriculum. Kids there already write lots of essays, and in more than just English class.

"The test makers tell us, and research tells us, the best preparation for these tests is a strong curriculum well-delivered,'' said Northside Principal James Lalley. "That's what we focus on.''

However, at another top city school, Whitney Young Magnet, junior Bradford Williams has yet to face the kind of in-school deadline writing about abstract topics his $120-an-hour private tutor from the Academic Approach said he'll confront on the SAT.

Bradford knows some in-class writing tests are coming in British literature, but they haven't hit yet. He may do in-class journal writing, but the focus is "more on getting your thoughts out'' than organizing them into a persuasive essay.

Bradford is glad he's getting extra SAT training, but predicted that citywide, " a lot of students ... will look up and have 5 or 10 minutes left, and they'll be in trouble.''

The good news, Princeton trainer Julie Riedel recently told students in Vernon Hills, is that the SAT's new grammar and writing sections are highly coachable. They look like those on the SAT Writing II test, where Princeton claims such large gains that it's boosting its point-gain guarantee to 200 on the new 2400-point SAT, Riedel said.

SAT spokeswoman Kristin Carnahan, however, was skeptical. She said one study of the old SAT indicated coached students averaged only one more verbal and two more math questions right than uncoached kids. Mastering homework and in-class test material may have a better payoff than test prep, she said.

"We know that SAT scores are just one factor that colleges consider. So students have to think through how much [test prep classes] cost and how they can best use their time to really get ready for college," Carnahan said.

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