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Back to April Ed Reporter

Education Reporter
NUMBER 231 THE NEWSPAPER OF EDUCATION RIGHTS APRIL 2005

SAT Unveils Essay Question
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The SAT I test for college-bound students began in March to incorporate an essay question along with multiple-choice writing questions, adding 45 minutes to the previously three-hour test. Analogies are gone, and more advanced algebra questions are included in the math sections. The SAT II writing test is being eliminated since the SAT I now includes a writing section.

While a writing sample produced under high-pressure test conditions has obvious advantages in showing the unassisted writing ability of a college applicant, many observers worry about the subjective nature of scoring an essay question taken by 1.4 million students. Two readers, typically high school English teachers, will read each essay and score it.

Graded in 1-2 minutes 
It is unlikely that any of the thousands of readers hired to read the essays will spend more than a couple of minutes on each essay, according to the New York Times (1-30-05). A whole industry of writing tutors is busy preparing students to crank out a cogent argument in 25 minutes, generally encouraging a standard five-paragraph format of opening paragraph, three development paragraphs with examples, and concluding paragraph. A new book, Mastering the New SAT Essay by Elizabeth Drumwright, already promises a seven-step path to boosting scores.

Critics have characterized the essays as lightning-fast, formulaic exercises that are unlikely to reveal a student's true writing abilities. "There's no time for rewriting, which is the essence of good writing," complains Adam Robinson, an author of test-preparation books. (Washington Post, 1-16-05)

Sample questions from the College Board, which administers the SAT tests, indicate that the essay questions will typically start with a quote from a prominent work and ask the students to present an argument on an issue raised by the quote, such as "Do people have to be highly competitive in order to succeed?"

The College Board has some experience with grading essay questions because the now-discontinued SAT II writing test included one for a number of years. However, that test was taken by a much smaller pool of students than the SAT I.

Writing by formula 
Scorers are expected to reward evidence of logical reasoning more than writing mechanics. The test-preparation company Princeton Review has suggested that great writers such as William Shakespeare would probably do poorly on the test because they would not write according to the formula. Others say creativity isn't the point; making a quick, clear argument is a much more important life skill.

Another danger is that politically correct teachers will penalize students for expressing views they disagree with.

While penmanship is not supposed to be considered in the score, poor handwriting — or spelling for that matter — could well try the patience of the bleary-eyed graders devoting a minute or two to each essay. In the computer age, fewer and fewer schools emphasize acquisition of good cursive writing and spelling skills.


 
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