Skip to comments.SAT Essay Test Rewards Length and Ignores Errors
Posted on 05/04/2005 10:45:55 PM PDT by Angel
IN March, Les Perelman attended a national college writing conference and sat in on a panel on the new SAT writing test. Dr. Perelman is one of the directors of undergraduate writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He did doctoral work on testing and develops writing assessments for entering M.I.T. freshmen. He fears that the new 25-minute SAT essay test that started in March - and will be given for the second time on Saturday - is actually teaching high school students terrible writing habits.
"It appeared to me that regardless of what a student wrote, the longer the essay, the higher the score," Dr. Perelman said. A man on the panel from the College Board disagreed. "He told me I was jumping to conclusions," Dr. Perelman said. "Because M.I.T. is a place where everything is backed by data, I went to my hotel room, counted the words in those essays and put them in an Excel spreadsheet on my laptop."
In the next weeks, Dr. Perelman studied every graded sample SAT essay that the College Board made public. He looked at the 15 samples in the ScoreWrite book that the College Board distributed to high schools nationwide to prepare students for the new writing section. He reviewed the 23 graded essays on the College Board Web site meant as a guide for students and the 16 writing "anchor" samples the College Board used to train graders to properly mark essays.
He was stunned by how complete the correlation was between length and score. "I have never found a quantifiable predictor in 25 years of grading that was anywhere near as strong as this one," he said. "If you just graded them based on length without ever reading them, you'd be right over 90 percent of the time." The shortest essays, typically 100 words, got the lowest grade of one. The longest, about 400 words, got the top grade of six. In between, there was virtually a direct match between length and grade.
He was also struck by all the factual errors in even the top essays. An essay on the Civil War, given a perfect six, describes the nation being changed forever by the "firing of two shots at Fort Sumter in late 1862." (Actually, it was in early 1861, and, according to "Battle Cry of Freedom" by James M. McPherson, it was "33 hours of bombardment by 4,000 shot and shells.")
Dr. Perelman contacted the College Board and was surprised to learn that on the new SAT essay, students are not penalized for incorrect facts. The official guide for scorers explains: "Writers may make errors in facts or information that do not affect the quality of their essays. For example, a writer may state 'The American Revolution began in 1842' or ' "Anna Karenina," a play by the French author Joseph Conrad, was a very upbeat literary work.' " (Actually, that's 1775; a novel by the Russian Leo Tolstoy; and poor Anna hurls herself under a train.) No matter. "You are scoring the writing, and not the correctness of facts."
How to prepare for such an essay? "I would advise writing as long as possible," said Dr. Perelman, "and include lots of facts, even if they're made up." This, of course, is not what he teaches his M.I.T. students. "It's exactly what we don't want to teach our kids," he said.
SAT graders are told to read an essay just once and spend two to three minutes per essay, and Dr. Perelman is now adept at rapid-fire SAT grading. This reporter held up a sample essay far enough away so it could not be read, and he was still able to guess the correct grade by its bulk and shape. "That's a 4," he said. "It looks like a 4."
A report released this week by the National Council of Teachers of English mirrors Dr. Perelman's criticism of the new SAT essay. It cautions that a single, 25-minute writing test ignores the most basic lesson of writing - that good writing is rewriting. It warns that the SAT is pushing schools toward "formulaic" writing instruction.
This is a far cry from all the hoopla when the new SAT was announced two years ago. College Board officials described it as a tool that could transform American education, forcing schools to better teach writing. A "great social experiment," Time magazine said.
In an interview, five top College Board officials strongly defended the writing test but sounded more muted about its usefulness. "The SAT essay should not be the primary way kids learn to write," said Wayne Camara, vice president for research. "It's one basic writing skill. If that's all the writing your high school English department is teaching, you have a problem."
They said that while there was a correlation between writing long and a high score, it was not as significant as Dr. Perelman stated. Graders also reward good short essays, they said, but the College Board erred by failing to release such samples to the public. "We will change that," said Chiara Coletti, a vice president.
As to facts not mattering, they said it was a necessary accommodation on such a short, high-pressure test. "We know students don't write well when they're anxious," said Ed Hardin, a College Board test specialist. "We don't want them not to go forward with that little detail. Our attitude is go right ahead with that missing date or fact and readers should be instructed not to count off for that."
Cynics say the new essay is window dressing added to placate California officials who in 2001 were calling the old SAT outmoded and were threatening to stop requiring it. In a recent paper, Edward White of the University of Arizona notes, "As long ago as 1999, in College Board Report No. 99-3, a research team pointed out that 'writing assessments based on a single essay, even those read and scored twice, have extremely low reliability.' "
Indeed, the College Board's own advanced placement tests require multiple essays, but officials say that is not possible for the SAT, which at nearly four hours, is being criticized as too long.
"You can't base a lot on one essay," Dr. Camara of the College Board admitted. He said that was why the new SAT writing section also included 49 multiple-choice questions on grammar and style. Multiple-choice counts for 75 percent of the new writing grade; the essay 25 percent. "The multiple-choice makes the writing test valid," he says. In short, the most untrustworthy part of the new SAT writing section is the writing sample.
I'm really worried about the education in this country. They added the essay to be able to counteract grade inflation in High School, and now they don't even grade the essay on content and clarity.
Sounds like it's more of the "dumbing down" of our educational system. And I'm surprised that the NY Times would even allow an admission of this sort to be printed in its newspaper.
I've taught college students for the last 4 years. You have every reason to worry.
I had a high school physical science teacher that did this. I (trying to be a good student) wrote a answer to essay questions exactly as asked. During the end of the semester, i was pulling a D+ or so.
Later on i looked at the other guy's essay answers, the more they wrote, the higher the score, no matter what the content was. Some people would start about the question, then in the next paragraph it was about summer vacation and their weekends... I was sooo pissed, at the end of the semester, i did learn more than the other guys but i got a crappy grade. Yes our edumacation system is a joke, i noticed it going down hill when i was leaving highsckool.
One of the hardest - and perhaps most valuable - assignments I ever had in college was to do a book review/analysis of a 1200+ page book... The review was limited to two pages.
As Bill O'Reilly will often say: "Keep it pithy!"
When I took essay writing tests to get into Berkeley, they also expected to see five paragraphs. Intro, three proof para and a conclusion. Length was probably important too as evidence that you had something to say in the proof paragraphs. But it was clear that proper form mattered more than length. I don't think it matters between form and length if they are not going to read content, but all the English teachers wanted to see flowing prose and brilliant sentences. The fact is that very few people really know what constitutes good writing. The writing exam is just another way to let multicultural students in the door.
The addition of an essay was a dumb idea to begin with.
Essays are best written with sources at hand, and the scoring of an essay is always going to be subjective.
Excellent essays, especially if factual backup is required, cannot be written out of the blue.
I am stunned by the fact that college bound seniors would turn in 100 words on an essay. That is a paragraph, not an essay. Though, when I think about it, I can say I have seen college students do that.
I shudder to think what the grammar looks like in these essays. Especially, if the the thing need not be factually correct.
I know a Federal Magistrate who limits "letter briefs" to four double spaced pages including the address and signature blocks. If he receives a letter longer than four pages, then he simply tears off the offending pages and shreds them in open court to make examples of the lawyers who can't follow directions or express themselves concisely.
In college I pulled the same trick. I couldn't do very well in the physics and chemistry classes with sheer brainpower so I'd write lengthy essays and do quite well. . .
. . .until I met a couple of professors from the University of Chicago. They recognized separately what was going on, and they stopped me in my tracks and demanded performance. I will always be grateful for their academic firmness. This rigor taught me a lot.
Disclaimer: Opinions posted on Free Republic are those of the individual posters and do not necessarily represent the opinion of Free Republic or its management. All materials posted herein are protected by copyright law and the exemption for fair use of copyrighted works.