Testing the SAT
The College Board has revamped the old verbal section of the SAT, throwing out the analogies section and adding an essay. Is this really a measure of good writing?

by Anne Trubek ’88, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition, Oberlin College

Illustration by Annie Olecheski

Before you begin reading, I’d like you to do some writing. Imagine you are a 17-year-old high-school junior who plans to attend college. Take out a piece of paper and a pencil (not a pen). Absolutely no computers are allowed. Read the first paragraph and follow the directions beneath:

Although most people’s goal is to be happy at all times, being constantly satisfied and untroubled can actually prevent people from changing for the better. After all, why go to the trouble of changing if one is content with the ways things are? On the other hand, discontent often motivates people to make necessary changes. What revolution was not caused by widespread discontent? Who among us has not vowed to make a change because we are unhappy with some aspect of our lives?

Now, plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your readings, studies, experience, or observations. Please write legibly. You have exactly 25 minutes.

Is discontent often the first step to action?

Now, ask yourself if you’d want someone else to read what you just wrote. Do you think a college professor might be inclined to throw your illegibly scrawled, ill-conceived collection of thoughts out the office window? You might find such a judgment unfair and wish to explain that the essay you wrote did not represent your true abilities or potential.

The above writing assignment came from the College Board’s ScoreWrite: A Guide for Preparing for the New SAT Essay. On March 12, 2005, some 330,000 college aspirants were asked, for the first time, to write an impromptu, timed essay as part of the SAT. The College Board revamped the old verbal section of the SAT, throwing out the analogies section and adding, along with the essay, multiple-choice questions on grammar and sentence structure. Fill-in-the-bubble questions now count for 70 percent of a student’s score; the essay for 30 percent. The College Board claims the essay will provide colleges with a reliable indicator of student success and signal to high schools that they need to put increased emphasis on writing instruction.

But teachers of writing, myself included, are almost unanimously opposed to the SAT timed test because we know it will lead to even more occasions for professors, college administrators, and experts to disparage the quality of student writing, and fewer occasions to help students improve. The National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) issued a report May 3 to that effect. The report claims that “the writing test will be neither a valid measure of students’ overall writing ability nor a reliable predictor of students’ college performance” and that it “reflects a set of assumptions about writing—and about ‘good’ writing—that diverges from what the best current scholarship tells us about the nature of writing.”

Arthur VanderVeen, senior director for Curriculum and Evaluation Standards at the College Board, argues that the essay will help students “develop their points of view and help them participate in civil society.” (The questions on the SAT in March dealt with the role of majority rule and creativity in societies.) The essay mirrors the kinds of writing asked of students in high schools, VanderVeen claims, helps writers understand the importance of audience, and helps them marshal support for their views. “There’s no reason the test should lead to formulaic writing,” he asserts.

But how else could a student prepare for such a daunting task other than to plug ideas into a formula? Handwriting a response in 25 minutes will result in superficial prose and the triumph of an already ubiquitous academic exercise, the five-paragraph essay (an introduction with a thesis statement, three body paragraphs with supporting examples, and a conclusion). The pressure to perform well on the essay will only add more “teaching to the test” pressures in high schools (most states, including Ohio, already require a timed essay on their state graduation exams, which critics say thins curriculum and learning). Such high-stakes tests take time away from other more active, engaged learning and leave incoming college students even less prepared for college-level writing.

Next Page >>