Sunday, October 13, 2013

The writing test

I'm one of the scorers for the SAT essays. That factual accuracy is not required can get annoying, particularly when you get essays that say Einstein invented the lightbulb or that Shakespeare was a novelist. Then there are the literary analyses that give me the sensation of nails on a chalkboard because they do so miss the point.
 However, as the essays cannot be predicated on any prior knowledge of a subject, the rule is that the score cannot suffer for student ignorance. What the test is about is not making stuff up so much  Matthew J.X. Malady  asserts  in We Are Teaching High School Students to Write Terribly, but in being able to formulate a position with backup on the fly. 

Here's an extract:

 “In fact, trying to be true will hold you back.” So, for instance, in relaying personal experiences, students who take time attempting to recall an appropriately relatable circumstance from their lives are at a disadvantage, he says. “The best advice is, don’t try to spend time remembering an event,” Perelman adds, “Just make one up. And I’ve heard about students making up all sorts of events, including deaths of parents who really didn’t die.”
Now, you have to remember that students are only be scored for the effectiveness of their writing. The question of truth here is irrelevant. No one is supposed to win extra points out of sympathy for their situation here. The stuff of make believe is not just a component in creative writing but can work for expository writing when offering hypothetical examples for illustration. 

The real problem is not making stuff up and deviating from facts but canning essays. As the questions are fairly general, some SAT prep places advise students to jut plan an essay ahead of time and then just connect it to the question in the introductions. No matter what the prompt is, these students come in prepared to write about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks, or The Great Gatsby, or the American Revolution.  In truth, they can get away with it a lot of the time, but every once in a while, there is a prompt that really doesn't fit the canned essay. On those occasions, no matter how well stated and developed the essay is unto itself, its score will suffer for not being on target.

Another assertion I find not to be true in my extensive scoring experience is this:

 Most students choose to write what is referred to as “the standard five-paragraph essay”: introductory and concluding paragraphs bookending three paragraphs of support in between. Each essay is later independently graded by two readers in a manner that harkens to the famous I Love Lucy scene wherein Lucy and Ethel attempt to wrap chocolate candies traveling on an unrelenting conveyer belt.

Scorers are specifically warned not to award or deduct points for students who opt for the 5 paragraph essay. As a point of fact, most essays I see, particularly the ones that score a 5 or 6 tend to incorporate fewer than 5 paragraphs, though the essays typically do cover both pages. Also the idea of two scorers is one that colleges also use when scoring writing assessment tests, as I remember from my days as an instructor. It's meant as a check on standards -- in case one scorer will tend to be too harsh or too lenient. They two reader system  is nothing like the chaotic image that Malady attempts to evoke with her television reference.  Is it possible that the writer here has fallen in the the fault he attributes to the SAT essay exam? He has opted for expressing what he feels will resonate with readers rather than for digging up the actual facts.

Now, I'm not saying that the SAT essay is a perfect way to assess student writing. Certainly, some students can do a much better job if only they were given more than 25 minutes. However, it is not the be-all-and-end-all of writing standards. Certainly, from what I see in high schools teachers continue to assert their own writing standards (and many of them still push the 5 paragraph essay) rather than train their students to write for the SAT exam.