Anne Trubek
(Photo by Fucha/Kasparek)

During the eight years in which I’ve taught rhetoric and composition at Oberlin, I’ve graded more than 4,000 essays.

I’ve read a lot of student writing—particularly that of incoming students. It’s tempting, while riffling through piles of double-spaced prose spotted with grammatical errors, infelicitous phrasing, and faulty reasoning, to cast aspersions. Who’s to blame? High schools are an easy target for professors at Oberlin and across the nation who lament the declining quality of post-secondary education.

But high schools have been the whipping boy of professors frustrated with student writing for more than a century. In fact, such complaints were one reason why college English departments were created in the 1890s. Colleges virtually threw up their hands and decided that high schools would apparently never do the job right, so they had better take up the burden. Thus, although your beloved professors of Shakespeare or Eliot or Thoreau may find fault with student writing, they owe their jobs, in part, to past efforts to improve it.

The antagonistic stance of professors of writing toward the new SAT may seem surprising—after all, the addition of a writing sample seems to validate the importance of writing. And what’s so bad about mastering the five-paragraph essay? College students who arrive with at least a five-paragraph model under their belts may be better prepared than those who arrive without it.

What college writing experts know, and what the National Council of Teachers of English report asserts, is that to improve writing, students need time to plan, reflect, and revise, something timed essays don’t allow. Further, students must feel connected to the topics they write about; writing for the sole purpose of demonstrating competency rarely produces strong prose.

Most important, learning to write is not like learning to ride a bike. As contexts and audiences change, writers must learn new knowledge, new rhetorical strategies, and new structures. That’s why high schools can never do what colleges yearn for them to do. They can only teach high school students to write for high school, because that’s the community in which the writing occurs. Only colleges can teach undergraduates how to master our codes or academic discourses. High school and college writing differ, as does business writing from journalism, and technical prose from creative writing.

Further, like my colleagues and me in our offices late at night, someone has to score the SAT essays—an estimated 2 million a year. In the test’s first iteration, the College Board commissioned Pearson Education to oversee scoring. Pearson hired high school and college writing teachers, paying them between $17 and $22 an hour. Scorers were trained through an instructional eight-hour CD-ROM. (I applied to be a scorer, but when I learned I’d be expected to score 220 essays in an eight-to-ten hour work day, or two to three minutes per essay, without breaks, and to agree to at least 30 hours of scoring a week, I balked.)

Scorers were encouraged to grade on the basis of the quality of examples students used to support their claims. The guidelines favor lengthy essays that use “SAT vocab” words and include elite cultural references. In the ScoreWrite pamphlet, for example, a top-scoring essay was lauded for using Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale “as an example of discontent motivating a society to make radical changes.” A low-scoring essay was faulted for weak critical thinking in its “appropriate but limited” example of Christopher Columbus. Essays that displayed an “impressive” vocabulary received higher scores. And though the College Board claims otherwise, longer essays generally received higher scores than shorter ones. That the essay must be handwritten provides another hurdle for some students. Messy handwriting, like an unprofessional type font, negatively influences the reader’s perception of the writer.

Even if studies didn’t already exist demonstrating that timed essays are neither reliable nor valid indicators of ability, it’s clear that no one can ace this essay cold. Performing well requires that students receive effective aids: well-trained teachers, books, Internet access, or, best of all, a test-prep class. Unless these resources are equitably distributed, the essay will exacerbate the educational gap in this country—exactly what the SAT initially set out to close.

Originally administered in 1926, the SAT began as a noble experiment to create a Jeffersonian natural aristocracy, an intellectual elite drawn from the best and brightest, regardless of race or class background, through neutral testing. But it never realized that perhaps unattainable goal. Numerous studies have proven that the test is biased against minorities and low-income students. According to FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, the average verbal score for African Americans in 2004 was 430; for whites, it was 528. Those whose families earned between $20,000 and $30,000 per year averaged 459; those whose families earned above $100,000 averaged 553.

All Americans should have the chance to be admitted into college, even a highly selective college like Oberlin. However, high-stakes standardized testing such as the SAT will not help achieve this goal. Just as high schools will never prepare students well enough for colleges, these tests will never measure student ability regardless of educational experience or family background.

If we really want to prepare students for civil society, we should give them the tools they need to think and learn and offer them meaningful, honest contexts for writing. As the title of the NCTE report reads, “Good Writing Instruction, Not Testing, Is the Best Preparation for College.” One Jeffersonian ideal is still alive, if limping, in our country today: universal access to publicly funded K-12 education. What might we accomplish—what gains in knowledge and learning might ensue—if the energy, money, and talents used to create, modify, administer, prepare for, complete, defend, and critique the SAT and its revamping were instead directed toward improving the educational quality of our public schools? What if, for instance, we found a way to offer all students a chance to write, and write more often, on matters of importance for real audiences, and what if we provided them with teachers who had the time and training to offer them humane, individualized feedback?

The sample essays in the ScoreWrite pamphlet represented a range of ideas, examples, and rhetorical forms. However, they had one thing in common: all essays argued that, yes, discontent leads to action. The prompt is flawed: it is exceedingly difficult to argue that action rarely stems from discontent. The question sets up a false debate. So too does the new SAT. The issue isn’t whether the new essay is a good thing; it’s how we can better educate all high school students in all schools, and how we can then teach those who choose college to write like college students.

Time that could be spent wrestling with big ideas and playing with language now will be spent preparing all-purpose, highbrow examples and learning fancy vocabulary words. Let’s hope the
2 million or so who take the test next year will find a way to express their discontent. Maybe they’ll discuss their unhappiness with the new SAT and suggest reforms. If so, we may find their essays surprisingly lucid, engaging, and sophisticated.

Anne Trubek directs the Community-Based Writing Program at Oberlin College. The opinions expressed here are her own.