We Are Teaching High School Students to Write Terribly

Getting schooled.
Oct. 10 2013 2:03 PM

We Are Teaching High School Students to Write Terribly

The many problems of the SAT’s essay section.

(Continued from Page 1)

Whether verifiably true facts, or an argument that supports a position one actually believes in, are among those necessary components is unclear. What if, for instance, a student comes across an essay prompt that she has a strong opinion about, but can think of better arguments for the opposing position? “The positive side to writing what you believe is that you are more likely to be enthusiastic and passionate,” Gruenwald says. “The ideas may come more smoothly. You may be able to make a very compelling argument. But if you find that there is the side you agree with, but then there is the side that you can come up with a list of really good points for, take the side that you can come up with the list of really good points for. That’s just good demonstration. Because what you are trying to do is demonstrate that you have the writing competency to succeed at the college level. That’s not really dependent upon your opinion of the subject.” And, he admits, “It’s not even related to your grasp of the facts, necessarily.”

For university educators like Perelman and Gere, such realities become part of a trickle-down-type problem. Because of the great importance students, parents, and college admissions officers place on the SAT—as well as the large sums of money that many families spend on outside test prep—high school writing instructors are placed in a bind. “Teachers are under a huge amount of pressure from parents to teach to the test and to get their kids high scores,” Perelman says. They sometimes have to make a choice, he adds, between teaching writing methods that are rewarded by SAT essay-readers—thereby sending worse writers out into the world—or training pupils to write well generally, at the risk of parent complaints about their kids not being sufficiently prepared for the SAT. “And sometimes when they get that pushback, that means they don’t get a promotion, or get a lower raise. So it actually costs them to be principled. You’re putting in negative incentives to be good teachers.”

Gere says the end result of that dynamic shows up when students arrive at college. “I think it’s a very large problem, one that I’m concerned about, and one that we deal with a lot here,” she adds. “What happens is in first-year writing, the typical pattern is that students come in pretty well equipped to write the five-paragraph essay, and much of first-year writing is a process of undoing that.”

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College professors, according to Gere, expect their students to be able to demonstrate evidence-based argument in their writing. This involves reading and synthesizing materials that offer multiple perspectives, and writing something that shows students are able to navigate through conflicting positions to come up with a nuanced argument. For those trained in the five-paragraph, non-fact-based writing style that is rewarded on the SAT, shifting gears can be extremely challenging. “The SAT does [students] no favors,” Gere says, “because it gives them a diminished view of what writing is by treating it as something that can be done once, quickly, and that it doesn’t require any basis in fact.”

The result: lots of B.S.

“In our placement tests, you see this all the time, where people continue the B.S., because they just assume that’s what works,” says Perelman. “I think [the SAT essay] creates damage, that it’s harmful.” 

College Board President David Coleman just might agree. In September, Coleman seemed to concede that something is amiss with the essay. He raised the possibility of an essay revamp as part of a 2015 SAT overhaul that would focus the writing exercise more on students’ ability to critically analyze a piece of text and craft an essay that draws on the information provided.

That sort of change may seem like a good place to start. (Would it be too much to ask for some scratch paper, too?) But Gere says we should watch what we wish for with respect to changes to the essay format. She notes that as rushed and crazy-seeming as the SAT essay-scoring process is, the fact that real-live humans are reading and grading the essays is a positive. Computerized scoring is now used to grade writing submitted as part of the GMAT and TOEFL exams, among others. And that method of essay-scoring has come under fire from the National Council of Teachers of English and others for an array of alleged deficiencies—including an overemphasis on word lengths and other measurables, inaccurate error recognition, and a failure to reward creativity.

An SAT essay based on a longer passage with more detail and a constrained set of acceptable response options would likely result in written works that are much more amenable to machine scoring than the current essays. The forthcoming attempt to “fix” the SAT essay may be less about using a model that better lends itself to more valid assessments of students’ writing skills, or turning out better writers, and more about saving money and time by eventually replacing human essay graders with machines. 

“It seems to me pretty clear that’s where the SAT is headed,” Gere says. “So it goes from bad to worse, actually.”

And although other standardized tests—such as the LSAT and certain Advanced Placement exams—include essay components that differ from the SAT in terms of what skills are being tested and how writing submissions are scored, those alternative methods are not without their critics. So there would appear to be no standardized-test-essay panacea.

Kaplan’s Gruenwald notes that there have been rumblings about making the SAT essay optional. And some, he says, have suggested doing away with it altogether. Perelman would have no problem with that option. He notes that there’s one thing he tells every student working to achieve a high score on the SAT essay. “Use this [approach] on the exam,” he says, “but never write like this again.”

Matthew J.X. Malady is Slate’s Good Word columnist. Follow him on Twitter @matthewjxmalady.

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