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Published: Sunday, 9/5/2004

Reading, writing and more writing

BY KIM BATES
BLADE STAFF WRITER

ACT and SAT test takers now have another thing to worry about: anxiety over a blank page.

High school students will have to put the pen to paper - starting for the first time next year - on standardized tests that typically have measured their skills in reading, math, and science and helped determine college admissions.

The ACT will offer an optional essay to students beginning in February. The SAT is undergoing a myriad of changes, namely the addition of a written essay starting in March.

Although many area colleges and universities won't require the optional ACT writing portion - nor will they factor those results into decisions for admission, placement, or scholarships for now - it still has some students paying attention.

"I think it will change the whole dynamic of the test," said Scott Henry, 18, of Bowsher High School, who is preparing to take the ACT next month for the fourth time, in hopes of raising his score. "So far, we've had multiple choice, where you know you have the answer in there somewhere."

Earlier this year a national commission on writing, made up of university leaders, school superintendents, teachers, and writing experts, announced a national writing challenge that called for an increase of time and money devoted to student writing, with state and local curriculum guidelines requiring writing at all grade levels.

According to the commission's findings, more than 50 percent of college freshmen were unable to produce papers relatively free of language errors or to analyze arguments and synthesize information.

This is something high school student Dreama Pearson does not want to face herself; so she welcomes the addition of an essay portion on the tests.

She believes it will be another way - probably a sure one for her - to gain points on paper.

"I'm pretty confident with my writing skills," said Dreama, who's already taking private test preparation courses outside of her Toledo high school day. "Everybody should be able to write a composition."

At an open house Thursday at Bowsher High School in Toledo, tests in general - including proficiency tests and Ohio Graduation Tests - will be a major discussion point with parents.

"We're not just going to say, 'Hello, welcome to Bowsher.' It will be here's what you need to do for your kids," said Mona McGhee, a guidance counselor.

She said counselors plan to outline the changes in the SAT and ACT, namely the addition of the writing portions.

At St. John's Jesuit High School, all juniors this year are required to take the Princeton Review SAT online course as part of their standard curriculum. It was made possible with donations to the private school.

St. John's is believed to be the first school in northwest Ohio to offer such a program, in part to level the playing field among students who can't afford to pay for test prep classes outside of high school.

Cherie Bischoff, assistant principal at St. John's, said the students in November will be receiving the new SAT materials, including the essay information. She is unsure how students in the all-male, private school will respond overall to seeing the essay requirements.

"A lot of guys don't like to write. I think there's a fear factor there," she said.

According to College Board, which owns the SAT, 64 percent of colleges in the major athletic conferences and almost all Big Ten, PAC-10, and Atlantic Coast Athletic conferences will require a standardized writing test.

Because the ACT writing test is optional, officials are encouraging students to contact their schools of choice ahead of time to see whether they're requiring it, said Ed Colby, a spokesman for ACT.

At Bowling Green State University, Lourdes College, and Owens Community College, the ACT writing portion is not being required. At the University of Toledo, officials say it's being required, although students who opt not to take it won't be denied admission. The new test also won't be used to decide placement or scholarships at the institutions.

Officials at the schools said they stand behind writing tests already administered to incoming students.

"Technically we're going to recommend that students take the exam but be frank with them that it's not going to be utilized," said Gary Swegan, director of admissions at BGSU.

Richard Sterling, director of the National Writing Project based at the University of California, said he was satisfied overall to see the writing portions added to the standardized tests. He said he hopes they are upgraded and utilized over time.

"The big issue that's at the bottom of all of this is it raises the public's awareness of writing. That's what the goal is here," Mr. Sterling said. "Every parent should be saying to their children's schools: 'What's your writing program like?' "

Contact Kim Bates at: kimbates@theblade.com or 419-724-6074.



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