How to Score Well Without Really Writing

Today’s New York Times has a story on the new SAT, particularly the writing test. The print version has images of the opening lines of three essays that received a perfect score, while the on-line version includes images of the full text of three perfect-score essays.

The essays themselves are kind of interesting to look at. The question was one of those hideous, vague college application things: “Do memories hinder or help people in their effort to learn from the past and succeed in the present?” The three answers presented in full take different approaches. Essay #2 (there is no #1 on the site) offers two different examples, one literary and one political, of people failing to learn from experience. Essay #3 chooses the time-honored approach of a short introductory paragraph changin the question around to something the student is more comfortable answering, followed by a bunch of material about a vaguely related book. Essay #4 offers a personal story about learning from experience.

What does this really demonstrate? It’s hard to say. Probably, that students who do well on the SAT writing test will also do well writing college application essays. Also, I’ll bet that the tactic of Essay #2 (and to a lesser extent #3) will serve as the template for all future test-prep classes, and SAT graders of the future will come to cherish the increasingly rare students following the lead of #4.

The actual article in the Times takes the fairly uncharitable approach of highlighting the, shall we say, infelicities of the students’ prose. This strikes me as pretty unfair, as the students have 25 minutes to write whatever they’re going to write, which doesn’t leave a lot of time for multiple drafts and self-editing. As someone whose first draft of a statement for a faculty review included the sentence “Science is one of the top journals in all of science,” I have considerable sympathy for the students in this matter.

This blog post has taken me almost 20 minutes to write, after all, and I’d rather not know what grade the SAT people would give it…

10 thoughts on “How to Score Well Without Really Writing

  1. I wonder if they used (or will use in the future) a computer program to “grade” these SAT essays. Seems like that’s the solution some lazy instructors will use, when they don’t feel like reading every single essay.

  2. I agree that it was unfair for the article to latch onto a few awkward sentences. I’ve read probably a thousand SAT essays in the last year and a half (I teach for a test-prep company), and it doesn’t get much better than these samples (though it does get quite a bit worse, unfortunately).

    Writing style is one of the last things the graders look for (along with grammar and spelling). They’re more interested in whether you can organize your thoughts into sensible paragraphs than how your sentences sound when read aloud. The graders, I think, are so happy to find an essay made up of *complete sentences* that they’ll overlook a few clunky turns of phrase.

    The 25-minute time limit is a huge deal, especially for students who don’t often see this sort of assignment in school. The vague, poorly-defined questions (What is courage?) don’t help. The ACT essay, on the other hand, has a 30-minute time limit and gives students more specific prompts that are easier to work with, IMHO. I predict a slow drift of students from SAT to ACT, just for the slightly less painful essay experience.

  3. I’m sorry, that was just painful to read. These are really the best? I’m so glad I’m not a grader!

    I do understand that these writers got only 25 minutes, on a topic they hadn’t prepared for, but still, the best?

  4. It’s maddeningly unclear from the piece whether these essays received a 6 (or since they are read by two graders who add their scores together, a 12). I’d be surprised if they did.

  5. “Last week, when the board released 20 top-scoring essays…” strongly suggests that the printed essays got top marks.
    They’re not great, but it wouldn’t surprise me if they were the best. 25 minutes is not long, and I’ll bet there were a lot of students that didn’t manage to get anything coherent and complete down. If this is a new test, students won’t be well-coached in how to use their time.

  6. “Last week, when the board released 20 top-scoring essays…” strongly suggests that the printed essays got top marks.

    That was my read of it as well. I think the only essays that were released were ones that got top marks.

    I see a fair amount of student writing, mostly in contexts where they have, in principle, plenty of time to think about what they’re doing, and do multiple drafts and revisions. For 25 minutes, on a vague topic, these don’t surprise me at all.

    Somebody ought to get a bunch of bloggers together, and give them the writing SAT under timed conditions, and see what they come up with.

  7. “Somebody ought to get a bunch of bloggers together, and give them the writing SAT under timed conditions, and see what they come up with.”

    I’m game. Just tell me where and when to sign up — as long as I don’t have to grade any!

  8. I love these tests. All you have to do to do well is show that you’re even a slight bit intelligent. When I had to take my SATII writing–the “writing” test that you had to take before the new revised SAT came out–I had been out the night before and was having a bit of a rough morning (first hangover ever). I’m not sure what I ended up writing about, but I know it was an incoherent mess that somehow managed to touch on both Adlai Stevenson and the Everett Many Worlds Interpretation, with a little homage to Pynchon thrown in.

    Grading standards might have changed, but the end result was a perfect 800/800. I can easily see how it might have been half that. Illustrates a major point: it doesn’t really matter what you write about, because no essay is going to be good and it’s entirely dependent on who you get as your grader, so long as you write complete-but-not-necessarily-grammatically-correct sentences.

  9. Okay, I’ve made a sample SAT writing test on Survey Monkey. You can try it out here:

    Click here to take essay test.

    The instructions probably need to be revised to more thoroughly explain the online format, but I think it’s not bad. I tested it, and it does indeed record the starting and finishing time. It would be better if it gave test-takers a clock, too.

  10. I beg to differ.

    Twenty minutes is not a lot of ime to collect your thoughts and organize them into a ‘beautiful, flowing’ piece. But yes, it is certainly enough to come up with a set of arguments and opinions over the subject. To compose those thoughts into a readable essay and display mastery over the language at the same time is another thing.

    The SAT essays provided topics that were analytical rather than argumetative. Hence, the (apparently) broad scope.

    A Blog post may take twenty minutes to write, but what about the days and weeks of research into the subject that has gone into it?

    Opinions can be formed almost immediately about anything. It is the analysis that takes time.

    The question that has not been asked yet (and I am surprised) is should these essays be graded on the basis of analytical skills or argumentation. Given the short time-period they get to write the essay, I would opt for the latter.

    But then, I am just-another-guy, aren’t I?


    PS: I just wanted to see, if I could form a well-docummented opinin given twenty minutes of my time. And guess what, I am still in two minds over the subject. Maybe, I’ll sleep over this and see what comes out of it.
    PPS: BTW, you just got a new subscriber.

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