The big news for educators this year has been that the College Board is redoing its Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) by eliminating the writing requirement in 2016. Is this a good thing? Will this de-emphasis on writing have an effect on ETS's Test of English as a Foreign Language (TOEFL)?
More than a decade ago, ETS (Educational Testing Service), which also makes the SAT, decided to create an online internet-based TOEFL (iBT - Test of English as a Foreign Language). In my view, this change was a vast improvement over the paper-based test as it included compulsory speaking and writing components. Before the iBT, I saw many of my Asian students proudly achieve the score of 450+ gain admission to local California community colleges. Later, however, I discovered that many of these same students were still taking ESL courses. Why? Although the paper-based TOEFL was supposedly their passport to entrance into and success in an American college, they found out subsequently that they had little ability to produce academic-level spoken or written English. The old paper-based TOEFL was not a great predictor of success for these non-natives in an American college system.
Not only were these students challenged to understand lectures in English, but they had to summarize and verbally restate in writing what they had heard in lectures. The skills that they needed to be successful at an American college were not just the passive skills (reading, listening, and structure/grammar) that they were tested on in the Paper-Based TOEFL (PBT). They needed to be able to produce English - not just recognize meanings or do error correction. They had to be able to rethink what they heard or read and interpret meanings. With almost no or little preparation or training for this approach to learning, they remained stuck in remedial ESL classes. With the advent of the iBT, many of these foreign students found a purpose to learning to be active producers of English.
It makes no sense to eliminate writing as a component of the SAT unless there is some other way to verify a college applicant's capabilities to produce English. Doing a timed written test in English is different from submitting a prepared statement of purpose for admission. This latter document was likely read and edited by multiple friends, family members, and paid tutors - and may not be an indicator of how a student will fare under college test conditions. Why is ETS planning to eliminate an important measure of the productive and critical thinking abilities of native English speakers while demanding measurable performances from non-native speakers on the iBT (internet-based TOEFL)?
Though I admit to preferring more creative writing in high school, I was grateful in the end that my 11th grade English teacher worked my class hard, so that the five paragraph essay was almost reflexive by the time I was a freshman at UCLA. I passed the Subject A exam of those days and was able to enroll in a required English course from my first quarter. The former "Subject A exam" still exists at UCSD, for example, in the form of The Entry Level Writing Requirement. Students who do not achieve at least one of several entry-level writing composition scores must take a composition course (for which they earn no credit toward their future degree) and pass an exam. An ESL instructor who teaches this composition course at UCSD through Mesa College told me that if a student fails the end of quarter writing exam, (s)he must repeat the course until a passing mark is reached.
As much as I am against the teach-to-a-test approach to education, if high school students know that colleges require a writing score from the SAT, they will prepare for it with the guidance of their teachers. This practice alone may send a message to all (i.e., parents, students, teachers, administrators) that critical thinking clearly expressed in writing matters.
For a supporting view, please check out this Washington Post commentary. For a broader view of the elimination of the writing component of the SAT, read Inside Higher Ed's news brief.