New SAT writing section scores low
PHILADELPHIA — Answer the questions below on the basis of what is stated or implied in this oped. For each wrong answer, you'll receive a quarter-point reduction. Don't stress. Your score on this test is worth about as much as your entire high school transcript put together. Ready ... begin!
I've been a high school English teacher for 10 years, and if there's one thing I hate worse than the SAT, it's the idea of a new SAT, which, incidentally, hits testing centers next month for the nearly 1.5 million high school students who take it annually.
It's not that I'm against assessing kids. I give my own students eight to 10 assessments each marking period, though my assignments don't look anything like what students encounter on these high-stakes national exams - which kids would like to jettison as quickly as the suggestion that their parents chaperone the prom.
The new SAT consists of three parts: math, critical reading (a new name for the old "verbal" section), and a writing section, which is a misnomer. Each is worth between 200 and 800 points, for a total maximum score of 2400. Quantitative comparison questions have been dropped from the math section; in its place, more Algebra II and geometry. Analogies have been tossed from the critical reading section, leaving room for more reading passages.
The writing section is entirely new - 70 percent of it is composed of pesky multiple-choice grammatical questions (where students aren't writing anything - they're blacking in ovals), while the final 30 percent is reserved for a persuasive essay that our teenagers are supposed to draft and complete in 25 minutes.
Put your pencils down. Readers, I'm not kidding.
Gaston Caperton, the ambitious new head of the College Board, which administers the SAT, is not shy about his goal of changing the way that teens are taught: "When I saw what the College Board was and, more important, what it could be, I saw the power to do much more than they were doing in the past to improve education.... This [new] test is really going to create a revolution in the schools."
I'm not so sure. Graded solely on its ability to "improve education," the old SAT scored an "F" in my gradebook. The new version doesn't do much better.
The entire "writing" section of this new test is the kind of assessment that most teachers of writing would run away from. First of all, the idea that during the writing of this blitzkrieg essay - from the official SAT exam preparation booklet - "You should take care to develop your point of view, present your ideas logically and clearly, and use language precisely" in under half an hour and under extreme pressure is ridiculous.
We're not talking e-mail here. This article of mine you're reading now, for example, took several hours to compose - not to mention the fruitful give and take between the paper's editors and me.
That's how real writing gets done. It gets interrupted by coffee breaks, frequent trips to the bathroom, and knocks on the door - both literally and figuratively, as new ideas cross the threshold of the imagination and knock around the writer's mind.
Second, the slew of multiple-choice questions about grammar that the College Board calls "improving sentences and paragraphs" is not what Shakespeare had in mind when he dipped his quill in the inkwell before sitting down to edit a draft.
From the board's official Prep Booklet, here's the first example of what to expect (possible errors appear in italics): "The students (a) have discovered that (b) they can address issues more effectively (c) through letter-writing campaigns (d) and not through public demonstrations. (e) No error."
This sentence appears OK to me, even if it is a little clunky. According to the College Board, however, the error occurs at (d) because: "When a comparison is introduced by the adverb 'more,' as in 'more effectively,' the second part of the comparison must be introduced by the conjunction 'than' rather than 'and not.' "
But if I were to edit this sentence, I might make a few more changes: "The students discovered that they can address issues more effectively by writing letters than by demonstrating publicly." But, hey, I'd be wrong because this is not the portion of the writing section where I'm allowed to write anything.
What the bulk of the writing section of the new SAT is really measuring is acquired skills in managing style within the realm of standard written English; however, these skills cannot be taught or coaxed by silly, top-down, multiple-choice questions that, let's be honest, are an effort to trick up kids so that they can be sorted by colleges.
Students would be better served by consistently reading the commentary section of the local newspaper - and then periodically writing letters to the editor - than by sitting through the painfully boring lesson plans that these changes to the SAT are likely to inspire.
If the goal is to improve education, then I propose a portfolio-assessment approach where students are allowed to gradually generate (over the course of the year) multiple writing samples in various genres (the kinds of things found in any real library or bookstore) and then submit them by some agreed-upon due date.
Critics of this approach will say that portfolios are unreliable and that there is no way to guarantee student authenticity. But we teachers know the truth. The College Board would much prefer that their test remain mostly multiple-choice, which is cost-effective to score. Portfolios would require the Board to hire thousands of English teachers each year to read and assess over a million pages of student writing, much of it demonstrating genuine literacy learning. Now that would be a revolution.
• Mark Franek is an English teacher at the William Penn Charter School in Philadelphia, where he is also the dean of students.