Three hundred thousand high school students. Two hundred and twenty-five minutes. Twenty-four hundred points.
Early Saturday morning, as the new, expanded SAT debuts, American teenagers will hunker down in plastic chairs, hunch over laminate desks, rub the last traces of sleep from their eyes, and bear down on their No. 2 pencils.
The SAT has undergone the broadest revision in its 80-year history - and perhaps foremost among the changes, and the challenges on students' minds, is a 25-minute, two-page essay. To some, it's demonic; to others, a nuisance. To a few, it's a barometer of the state of adolescent prose in the age of the Internet as myriad types of writing compete with the letters of yore. [Editor's note: The original version mischaracterized how much the essay contributed to the overall score.]
Though plenty of adults grumble about e-mail and instant-messaging (IM), and the text messages that send adolescent thumbs dancing across cellphone keypads, many experts insist that teenage composition is as strong as ever - and that the proliferation of writing, in all its harried, hasty forms, has actually created a generation more adept with the written word.
"People are so intent on seeing contemporary popular culture as bad, as lesser, that they can't sort out certain ways in which young people today, because of the Internet revolution, are better at what we used to do," says Al Filreis, director of the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania, who deals with high school writers as well as college students. In the past 20 years, he's seen "the quality of student writing at the high school level [go] way up, and this is explained by the fact that they do more writing than they ever did."
As for the much-maligned lexicon of IM - "r u there?" and "wuzup?" - teens insist they haven't forgotten formal English, and are undaunted by transitioning between the two. E-mail "has made us definitely way more comfortable about writing, because we're doing it every day," says Myles McReynolds, a junior at Mullen High School in Denver, who's taking the SAT Saturday. Reliance on the cipher of IM, he says, "is just to shorten stuff up. It's not like we're doing it in real life."
But not everyone is so sure about teens' competence in "real life" English. Though online reading may be thriving, the amount of reading that students do in preparation for college is sinking, says John Briggs, an English professor at the University of California, Riverside. Online writing may cultivate informal use of language, he continues, but that doesn't increase kids' access to the more formal register of literature and academic prose.
"Americans have always been informal, but now the informality of precollege culture is so ubiquitous that many students have no practice in using language in any formal setting at all," he says. The remedy is "to restore the family dinner table to the teaching of writing - that setting which can be a very rich semiformal setting for the exchange of ideas," he says.
Yet if writing has become less formal, it may correspond more closely with adolescents' worlds: "The experience of writing has to be authentic," says Steve Peha, president of the education consulting company Teaching That Makes Sense Inc., in Chapel Hill, N.C. Still, the new SAT would make him nervous. "Sitting there with the test booklet, pencil in hand, and with 25 minutes to write a fairly cogent essay on an unusual conceptual topic is pretty daunting. I'd be nervous - and I write for a living."
Nathalie Arbel, who's taking the SAT Saturday, has reservations about the essay questions, too. Though the Cupertino, Calif., high school junior, like many of her friends, is warier of the test's length than of the essay itself, she's skeptical of the topics, which offer students a quotation and ask them to respond with their own opinions and examples from literature, history, or personal experience. "In general, they're kind of dumb," she says. "We're regular teenagers, and a lot of times we don't necessarily have an opinion on issues they test us on."
She recalls a sample question: What is your view of the claim that history is made not only by the actions of great leaders, but also by the contributions of average people? "I don't know or care if contributions are made by leaders or average people," she says. On top of that, she questions the rubric for scoring tests. "People generally despise standardized testing, and standardized essays are even worse because it's really difficult to tell how it's going to be graded."
Not to mention how it's going to be read. Scorers insist they will get through every essay, no matter how heinous the penmanship or how powerful the magnifying glass they need. But some say bias is inevitable - that an essay that's harder to read is harder to like.
Steve Graham, a professor of special education and literacy at Vanderbilt University, points to studies in which teachers were given the exact same essays, with variations in legibility or spelling errors. Asked to grade them based on content and to ignore mechanical issues, they still gave lower grades to the papers with spelling errors and writing that was hard to read.
Perhaps most fundamentally, though, the SAT essay could spur high schools to step up their writing instruction. It's a change that Krista Jackson, a junior at Homestead High School in Cupertino, would welcome. "In some classes," she says, "they have maybe one essay a month, if even that." And instruction is often lacking or rote: Remember the five-paragraph model? "A lot of times when we write our essays, our teacher will say how to write," says Krista. "And then we feel like we're filling in a formula."
Teachers readily admit there's room for improvement. Bernie Phelan, a teacher at Homewood Flossmoor High School in Illinois who helped develop the new SAT, recalls the national and state writing projects that began in the 1970s and says that while they made a "huge difference," their messages have gotten old. Now, as a new generation of teachers steps to the classroom's helm, he hopes for a renewed emphasis on high school writing programs.
That shift is already under way. "Writing instruction is getting stronger," says Brian Bremen, an associate professor of English at the University of Texas at Austin who will train teachers reading the SAT essays. "There's greater attention to things like revision, portfolios, and different kinds of writing, and more composition programs that aren't handmaidens to English programs."
Overall, says Dr. Filreis, whatever the worries that teens are morphing into fleet-fingered, e-mail-happy robots, there's a genuine writing renaissance under way. "We lost it in the '50s and '60s," he says, as telephones and TVs poured into American homes and daily writing dwindled to grocery lists and office memos. "I think we've gained it back. After a period of formal writing went away, the Internet revolution brought back writing in the daily sense."