What we made of the SAT essay

Thousands of high school students across the nation are taking that rite of passage this spring, the dreaded SAT. But the ante was upped in March with the introduction of the new, improved - and controversial - SAT. For the first time, the test includes an essay portion.

Hoping for insight into the historic change, the Monitor invited three of its columnists to take a sample of the essay section offered on the web by The Princeton Review, the test-preparation company. The results are neither scientific, meaningful, nor even symbolic (we tried for an angle) - but they're fun:

• The A-student - political columnist Dante Chinni - overachieved.

• The smart alec - who was the Monitor's book editor, Ron Charles - wrote an essay to say "no" to the invitation. (This, however, is not the reason Mr. Charles no longer works for the Monitor and is now a senior editor of The Washington Post Book World.)

• The slacker - a columnist who shall remain nameless (OK, it was Jeff Shaffer) - gave the contemporary, almost convincing version of the "dog ate my homework" excuse: "My computer kept bombing, and I couldn't log on to the site."

Ron: My slow trudge through academia was propelled almost entirely by promising myself that I would never again have to do certain things: 1. I will never again take gym. 2. I will never again read sentences in Middle English in front of a girl I'm trying to impress. 3. I will never again eat "chicken-fried steak." 4. I will never again pretend to have read (or enjoyed) "Ulysses." 5. I will never again claim on a scholarship application that I'm a Guatemalan girl who learned English by listening to the BBC on our village's shortwave radio. 6. I will never again take the SAT. Sorry.

DANTE: As a professional writer, or at least someone who passes as a professional writer, I'm a big believer in the power of written correspondence. A good cover letter can be critical in landing a job. A heart-felt poem can help secure a date. And a well-written complaint letter can score scads of free stuff.

So when I first heard that the SAT, that bane of all college-minded high schoolers, was adding an essay to its three-plus hour laundry list of "solve for x"s and "find the error in this sentence"s, I was pleased. Life isn't a multiple-choice quiz. It requires reason and imagination, often at the same time.

In February, my editor at the Monitor suggested I take a practice version of the essay that The Princeton Review provided online to anyone who wanted to give it a whirl and, against my better judgment, I acceded. She even issued a prescreened excuse in case I didn't score well: "[The education editor] says it's not unreasonable to assume professional writers won't do that well because they don't write the traditional English-class essays."

How did I do? Well, the good news for myself and my ego, is - quite well, thank you. My argument was "well-reasoned," according to my Princeton grader. My examples were "appropriate," and I had "great insight into the prompt." I scored a perfect 12 out of 12. Huzzah for me. Harvard, here I come!

But getting beyond the thrill of acing a test aimed at teenagers that evaluates a skill I get paid to perform on a regular basis, I have some concerns about the new SAT essay.

First off, I'm not really sure what's being measured. My assignment was to write a paragraph on, "What is your opinion of the claim that breaking the rules is sometimes necessary?" using examples from my personal life or the arts or current events, etc. That's a pretty broad subject for an 18-year-old to consider and intelligently discuss in written form in the 25 minutes allowed.

The point of an essay test in college isn't just to express oneself but to tell the instructor what one has learned and contextualize that knowledge into a broader framework. Students don't come at a subject cold, they have had a semester studying a topic. In other words, if you see "Discuss the effects of WWII on postwar economies of Europe," you've probably been studying, say, Europe since 1945.

This test doesn't do that, and I'm sure the good people at the College Board would tell me that's because the SAT is a standardized test given to kids who have taken all sorts of classes at all sorts of schools around the country. Maybe, but one way to fix that problem might be to give students a long passage or article to read and have them react to it, citing where they agree or disagree and why - ask them to show critical skills. This writing test doesn't do that.

And that brings us to problem No. 2. Making questions this broad and airy-fairy is going to lead to people sidestepping the task - not really answering the question, such as it is, but using strategies to get around it. Well-prepared students will have essay forms outlined in their heads before they even sit down: State the question, talk about how it relates to "Crime and Punishment"/"The Brady Bunch," explain how Dostoyevsky/Sherwood Schwartz had a valid point, restate the question, add a concluding sentence.

This formula should work for about 80 percent of the open-ended questions one could be asked, from "What is the nature of man?" to "How does lying damage the psyche?" to "Why is playing ball in the house a bad idea?"

And that means that the essay portion of the test, aimed at getting beyond the basic multi-choiceness of the SAT, is ultimately just another standardized hoop to jump through - the kind of thing for which preparation classes can and do teach tricks.

It's better than nothing, I suppose. It tests grammar and spelling and punctuation. But it probably won't tell you how well someone writes in any meaningful way. The ability to form an argument quickly on a random topic is a fine skill if you want to, say, host "Crossfire," but it won't produce many bestsellers - or even good newspaper columns.

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