NMA Campaign Issue: SAT/ACT Writing Exam

A Note About NMA Message Frameworks
NMA message frameworks are intended as starting points for NMA members to create their own messages. These might include (but are not limited to) letters to the editor, op-ed pieces, comments for local radio or television stations, and so on. Remember: the more locally grounded your message, the more likely it is to be included in local media. Feel free to add information based on your experience, your class, and/or your writing program.

NMA Message Framework - Structure and Approach to the SAT/ACT Writing Exam

We applaud the inclusion of writing in the revised SAT and ACT exams. However, the structure of the current exam emphasizes superficial fluency at the expense of thoughtfulness and depth that is important for success in college and beyond.

Successful writing requires drafting, revising, and editing. The new writing component of the SAT/ACT exams do not allow for these activities. Instead, the exam consists of a writing section where students are expected to respond to a question in 25 or 30 minutes and one, handwritten, draft. (Both exams also include a multiple-choice section focusing on conventions of punctuation and mechanics.) Students will not use strategies that are essential for successful writing for either section of these tests.

The structure of these exams also does not reflect qualities that lead students to become successful writers. Good writers are flexible. They understand that definitions of "good writing," from content to style to tone to use of punctuation, depend on the context and audience for the writing. They know how to assess the expectations of different audiences, make conscious decisions about how best to meet those expectations, and draw on a range of writing strategies with which to do so.

Rather than helping students develop the ability to analyze expectations of a variety of audiences, develop flexible writing strategies from which to draw to meet those expectations, and make conscious decisions about which strategies to employ, these exams require students to produce a particular kind of writing under highly controlled circumstances. They are to write about specific questions in specific ways, even on specific paper provided to them in the exam. Their performance in these highly controlled circumstances does not reflect the work done by real writers, who must make decisions about their ideas and presentation on a regular basis.

Resources for Learning More about the Limits of the ACT/SAT Writing Exams

Tips for Attracting Attention of Local Media

  • See below

NMA Message Framework - Use of the SAT/ACT Writing Exams for Placement in First-Year Writing Courses

The SAT and ACT exams ask students to produce a “first draft” piece of writing in response to a specific prompt in 25 or 30 minutes. Even though the test firms do not propose using this test for placement into college courses, it is likely that many institutions will be tempted to use it for that purpose. Yet, the current design and execution of these exams makes them invalid and unreliable measures of students' writing abilities.

Because the exams include a one-draft sample, written quickly, and a multiple-choice grammar test, it is inappropriate to use these samples for placement in college writing courses. They do not reflect the process used in real writing situations of drafting, revising, and editing and do not reflect the test taker's real writing abilities.

Research, including research done by the College Board itself, has long shown that a single piece of writing is not a reliable indicator of a writer's real abilities. The first such study, in 1953, showed that 58% of Michigan State University students significantly changed their score on writing a second essay one day after the first. A fifth of the lowest quartile rose from the bottom with their second essay, and about half of the highest quartile fell from the top. Other studies have reinforced the unreliable nature of "one-shot" and multiple-choice. The testing firms seek to enhance the reliability of the writing test by combining the impromptu essay score with a score derived from various multiple-choice items, which have long been shown to have strong correlations with parent incoming and student social class and ethnic status. This combination of an unreliable essay score with an invalid multiple-choice score cannot produce meaningful results.

Although the intention of these tests is to emphasize the importance of writing, the reverse has happened: the intention has been undercut by the inadequacies of the tests' present design. It is thus inappropriate to use them for any measure of a students' writing ability, whether before college or once enrolled.

Resources for Learning More about the Use of SAT/ACT Writing Exams for Placement

  • "Taking Issue" - essays for and against the SAT by college and testing professionals (from NPR.org)

Tips for Attracting Attention of Local Media

  • Act locally
You are more likely to receive a hearing if the target for your media action is local -- campus and/or local newspapers, local public radio stations, even local television network. Local media are interested in local stories.

Write what's most likely to get you heard, at least initially. In newspapers, letters to the editor and/or opinion-editorial (op-ed) pieces are most likely to be published. Issues like those in the NMA frameworks are current and timely.

Take advantage of existing stories. It's often easier to advance a position with it's put in the context of something already determined to be newsworthy.

Choose a local story to tell. Media outlets like details -- about programs, students, and/or classes. Choose a story in which to ground your message and make it lively.

  • Be concise and don't overcomplicate
Writing and reading practices are complicated. When communicating with audiences outside of academe, make your case in the most clear and straightforward way possible. Avoid jargon and use clear, simple language. The NMA message frameworks are intended to help.

Use the five Ws for your information (who, what, when, where, and why)

Be honest and accurate. Understate your case. It is better to set reasonable expectations and then exceed them to promise more than you can deliver.

If you are targeting radio and/or television reporters (or outlets), practice your responses before your interview. Choose key points to make, but be spontaneous in your discussions. Make sure you don't sound rehearsed.

  • Know your target

Read newspapers, watch the television programs and listen to the radio programs you are interested in having cover issues or events that you are working on. You need to be familiar with their approach(es). You also need to use the conventions that they use for your responses.

Understand the news planning process Find out deadlines and decision makers at news media organizations. Who assigns stories? What factors impact what gets covered? When are deadlines?

Evaluate advertising. What audience is the publication or program trying to reach? Pitch stories that target a similar audience.

  • Become a resource

Develop relationships with reports who cover your issue(s). What are they interested in? What do they want to write about?

Be reliable. If reporters call you, return their calls as soon as possible.

Don't overreach. If you don't know the answer to a question, say "I don't know" rather than coming up with something you aren't sure about.

Know your opposition. Be ready and able to help reporters with alternative perspectives or stories that may not involve you or your organization so that they'll return to you as a regular source.



*This position framework was developed in consultation with Ed White. Media tips are based on and include material from Stone's Throw Strategic Communication, Manhattan Beach, CA
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