May 29, 2005
Writing for points
The "new SAT," with its essay and grammar sections and its absent analogies section, will be administered for the third time on Saturday, and speculation about what the new format really tests continues. Shortly before the second administration of the test earlier this month, an M.I.T. writing instructor announced that he had discovered a direct correlation between essay length and score; more important than correct grammar, clarity of argument, accuracy of fact, or lucidity of expression, it seemed, was the sheer volume of prose a test-taker could produce during the allotted 25 minutes.
Today, a week before the third administration of the exam, Ann Hulbert argues in the New York Times Magazine that the essay section of the new SAT tells us more about our "take-no-prisoners culture of argument" than it does about students' capacities for critical thinking or clear expression. Citing two sample questions--"Is it more important to follow the rules exactly or to base your actions on how other people may be affected?'' and ''Are people motivated to achieve by personal satisfaction rather than by money or fame?"--Hulbert parses the values inherent in an exercise that seems to privilege one-sided argumentation over balanced analysis and that requires students to make snap judgements rather than to conduct reasoned examinations of issues:
The real problem with the SAT persuasive essay assignment isn't what it conveys about spontaneity or style but what it suggests about how to argue. Students are asked to ponder (quickly) a short excerpt of conventional wisdom about, say, the advisability of following rules, and they are then instructed to ''develop your point of view on this issue.'' But if the goal of ''better writing'' is ''improved thinking,'' as the College Board's National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges has pronounced, perhaps it's worth asking whether practice in reflexively taking a position on any potentially polarizing issue is what aspiring college students -- or the rest of us -- need most.
As those sample essay questions at the start reveal, and as any test-prep book will confirm, at the homiletic heart of the SAT writing assignment is the false dichotomy. The best strategy for a successful essay is to buy into one of the facile premises that inform the question, and then try to sell it as if it were really yours. Essayists won't be penalized for including false information, either, according to the official guide for graders. ''You are scoring the writing,'' it instructs, ''and not the correctness of facts.''
False analogies, of course, were an old SAT staple, but at least test takers got credit for picking only the true one. By contrast, the test-prep industry bluntly says that a blinkered perspective pays off on the essay -- and nobody knows better than the professional SAT obsessives. ''It is very important that you take a firm stance in your essay and stick to it,'' insists Kaplan's ''New SAT.'' Practicing what it preaches, the prep book doesn't let go. ''You are not fair and balanced! (Well, you should be fair, but definitely not balanced.)'' Kaplan drives home the point yet again, just in case. ''What's important is that you take a position and state how you feel. It is not important what other people might think, just what you think.''
This doesn't bear much resemblance to an exercise in critical reasoning, which usually involves clarifying the logic of a position by taking counterarguments seriously or considering alternative assumptions. The English teachers may worry that in the rush to prepare for the SAT expository essay, personal writing will get short shrift in schools. In fact, self-centered opinion is exactly what the questions solicit. ''Don't panic and write from the opposing point of view'' is Kaplan's calming advice.
Kaplan's advice, at least as Hulbert reports it, is at odds with that in some of the SAT prep books I've looked at recently. The College Board's official SAT study guide, for example, offers sample responses to sample questions, showing what sorts of essays get which kinds of scores. Longer essays did indeed score higher, but so did balanced essays that examined multiple sides of an issue; more polemical essays that neglected to acknowledge counterarguments, shorter essays, and essays that drew on personal experience rather than more "scholarly" sources--historical events, works of literature, scientific knowledge, and so on--scored less well. This is not to say that I'm right and Hulbert is wrong, but rather to note that different test prep centers appear to be giving different advice, and that this itself tells us something significant about the sheer uncertainty of exactly what the new SAT really tests.
"Is it more important to follow the rules exactly or to base your actions on how other people may be affected?'' and ''Are people motivated to achieve by personal satisfaction rather than by money or fame?"
These are horrible essay questions. As a fairly analytical person, I would have been paralyzed by the first question. What rules? You can't possibly answer such a question without knowing what the rules are. As to the other question, the typical seventeen-year-old doesn't have much of a clue what her own motivations are, let alone anyone else's. I'm really glad my daughter got her SAT out of the way before this stuff hit.