Monday, January 11, 2010

SAT Essay

I teach for Kaplan Inc.; more specifically, I teach the SAT for the Boston Pre-College Office.  My favorite section of the test to teach is the essay, since I took the writing twice back when it was a separate test, and I improved my essay score by 5 points (and my total score by about 140, a lot of which was from the essay).  So, after reading up on the GRE on Wikipedia, I checked out the SAT.  I decided to look at the criticisms, to see how fair they were.  Here's one section:

"MIT Study

In 2005, MIT Writing Director Les Perelman plotted essay length versus essay score on the new SAT from released essays and found a high correlation between them. After studying over 50 graded essays, he found that longer essays consistently produced higher scores. In fact, he argues that by simply gauging the length of an essay without reading it, the given score of an essay could likely be determined correctly over 90% of the time. He also discovered that several of these essays were full of factual errors, although the College Board does not claim to grade for factual accuracy.
Perelman, along with the National Council of Teachers of English also criticized the 25-minute writing section of the test for damaging standards writing teaching in the classroom. They say that writing teachers training their students for the SAT will not focus on revision, depth, accuracy, but will instead produce long, formulaic, and wordy pieces.[32] "You're getting teachers to train students to be bad writers," concluded Perelman.[33]"

Look, I teach this test.  I can't give away exactly how the essay is taught, since you need to take a Kaplan course for me to be able to do that.  But let's use common sense.

Let's say that you write an essay for the SAT, and it's 2 medium-length paragraphs long.  What are the chances that you've managed to write a good SAT essay?  Here are the basic instructions for any given SAT essay:

"Plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your reading, studies, experience, or observations."

Can you develop your point of view on an issue and support your position with reasoning and examples in two paragraphs?  Probably not.

As for factual errors, College Board hasn't ever really pretended that it checks for those.  You can lie in this essay.  Really.  Of course, it's much easier to tell the truth than it is to lie, but if you want to make up a historical figure or book character so you can use them as examples to make your point, you can do it.  The essay is not meant to actually measure your knowledge of whatever you're talking about (if you want to do that, take a subject test).  It's meant to examine your writing abilities.  So no one cares if you write about how Obama wants to create death panels because no one cares how accurate it is as long as you're able to utilize this factoid properly in your essay.

So, if the test is meant to measure your writing abilities, and we agree that a student is more likely to write a better essay if s/he writes more, rather than less (there is a cap of 2 handwritten pages, so students can't write 10 pages, which they probably couldn't achieve in 25 minutes anyway), then obviously there's going to be a correlation between essay length and essay score.  The essays are still judged based on non-length attributes, of course, so it's not as if readers are just looking at length and applying a score.  But honestly, I guess I just don't see a problem with this.

The fact is, you cannot really FIX this problem, if it even is one.  The only way to have factual accuracy be a requirement would essentially be to give students laptops with internet access for them to look up information during the exam, and considering the ways that that would facilitate cheating, I doubt anyone would suggest that.  After all, students are not informed of the topic of the essay prior to the test (to prevent cheating/pre-writing), and so they wouldn't be able to study their sources and examples beforehand.*

Does the essay really measure writing ability?  I have to grade the essays for my students when I administer the test (for the real test, there are professional readers, but Kaplan trains all of its teachers to know how to pretty damn accurately score these essays), and I can tell you, the better writers usually start out with higher scores and/or improve the most (poor writers often never get the hang of how to write an SAT essay).  So, yes, I think there's value in the writing section.

Honestly, if people want to question the applicability of the SAT, I think it would be more worthwhile to examine the cultural biases.  I don't think that the SAT is perfect, nor do I think it's a good test for everyone.  But to argue that the essay portion is bogus because of a correlation is to misunderstand how the test works.

* From what I remember of the Biology AP test, we did have to write short essays on a few biological topics (I think I got ones about moss and the MHC, both of which I TOTALLY BS'ed even though I understand the MHC better now; we never learned either in class).  I do think that this is a better (NOT perfect, just better) way of testing knowledge in essay sections; the goal wasn't to see how well students could write, but to see how well they understood a concept.  If you were to add a writing component to the SAT subject tests (some of them, anyway), I could see that maybe working.  Then again, I don't teach any of the SAT subject tests, so what do I know?

No comments:

Post a Comment