09 December 2015

On the new SAT essay, part I: background

In the past, I haven’t posted much about the SAT essay. Even though my students always did well, teaching the SAT essay was never my favorite part of tutoring, in large part because I’m what most people would consider a natural writer (thanks in large part to the 5,000 or so books I consumed over the course of my childhood), and “naturals” don’t usually make the best teachers. Besides, teaching someone to write is essentially a question of teaching them to think, and that’s probably the only thing harder than teaching someone to read.

The redesigned essay is a little different, first because it directly concerns the type of rhetorical analysis that so much of my work focuses on. In theory, I should like it a lot. At the same time, though, it embodies some of the most problematic aspects of the new SAT for me. Some of these issues recur throughout the test but seem particularly thorny here.

I’ve been trying to elucidate my thoughts about the essay for a long time; for some reason, I’m finding it exceptionally difficult to disentangle them. Every point seems mixed up with a dozen other points, and every time I start to go in one direction, I inevitably get tugged off in a different one. For that reason, I’ve decided to devote multiple posts to this topic. That way, I can keep myself focused on a limited number of ideas at a time and avoid writing a post so long that no one can get more than halfway through!

Before launching into an examination of the essay itself, some background.

First, it is necessary to understand that the major driving force behind the essay change is the utter lack of correlation between factual accuracy and scores – that is, the rather embarrassing fact that students are free to invent examples (personal experiences, historical figures/battles/act, novels, etc.) without penalty. In particular, personal examples have been a particular target of David Coleman’s ire because they cannot be assessed “objectively.” The College Board simply could not withstand any more bad publicity for that particular shortcoming. As a result, it was necessary to devise a structure that would simultaneously require students to use “evidence” yet not require – or rather appear not to require – any outside knowledge whatsoever.

As I’ve pointed out before, students have been – and still are – perfectly free to make up examples on the ACT essay, but for some mysterious reason, the ACT never seems to take the kind of flack that the SAT does. Again, marketing.

My feelings on this issue have evolved somewhat over the years; they’re sufficiently complex to merit an entire post, if not more, so for now I’ll leave my opinion out of this particular aspect of the discussion.

Let’s start with the pre-2016 essay.

Despite its very considerable shortcomings, the current SAT essay is as close as possible to a pure exercise in “using evidence” – or at least in supporting a claim with information consistent with that claim (information that may or may not be factually accurate), which is essentially the meaning of “evidence” that the College Board itself has chosen to adopt.  

For all its pseudo-philosophical hokeyness, the current SAT essay does at least represents an attempt to be fair. The questions are deliberately constructed to be so broad that anyone, regardless of background, can potentially find something to say about them. (Are people’s lives the result of the choices they make? Can knowledge be a burden rather than a benefit?). Furthermore, students are free to support their arguments with examples from any area they choose – contrary to popular belief, there is ample room for creativity. 

While students may, if they so choose, use personal examples, the top-scoring essays tend to use examples from literature, history, science, and current events. The example of a top-scoring essay in the Official Guide, if memory serves me correctly, is an analysis of the factors leading up to the stock market crash of 1929 – not exactly a personal narrative. In contrast, essays that rely on personal examples, particularly invented ones, tend to be vague, unconvincing, and immature. Yes, there are some students who can pull that type of fabrication off with aplomb, but in most cases, “can” does not mean “should.”

Furthermore, students who make up facts to support other types of examples are rarely able to do so convincingly. The ones who can are, by definition, strong writers who understand how to bullshit effectively – a highly useful real-world skill, it should be pointed out. But in general, the best writers tend to have strong knowledge bases (both being the result of a good education) and thus the least need to make up facts.

That is why the essay, formerly part of the Writing SAT II test, was relatively uncontroversial for most of its existence: only selective colleges required it, and so only the students who took it were students applying to selective college – a far, far smaller number than apply today. As prospective applicants to selective colleges, those-test takers were generally taking very rigorous classes and thus had very a solid academic base from which to draw. Remember that this was also in the days before work could be copied and pasted from Wikipedia, and when AP classes were still mostly restricted to very top students. While plenty of smart-alecks (including, I should confess, me) did of course invent examples, the phenomenon was considerably more limited than it became in 2005, when the essay was tacked on to the SAT-I.

Based on what I’ve witnessed, I suspect that the questionable veracity of many current essays is also a result of the reality that many students who attempt to write about books, historical events, scientific examples, etc. simply do not know enough facts to support their arguments effectively, either because they are not required to learn them at all in school (the acquisition of factual knowledge being dismissed as “rote memorization” or “mere facts”), or because information is presented in such a fragmentary, disorganized manner that they lack the sort of mental framework that would allow them to retain the facts they do learn.

One of the unfortunate consequences of doing away with lectures, I would argue, is that students are not given the sort of coherent narratives that tend to facilitate the retention of factual information. (Yes, they can read or watch online lectures, but there’s no substitute for sitting in a room with a real, live person who can sense when a class is confused and back up or adjust an explanation accordingly.) 

At any rate, when word got out about just how ridiculous some of those top-scoring essays were… Well, the College Board had a public relations problem on its hands. The essay redesign was thus also prompted by the need to remove the factual knowledge component. 

Now, here it gets interesting. As I forgot until recently, the GRE “analyze an argument” essay actually solves the College Board’s problem quite effectively. (The GMAT and LSAT also have similar essays.) Test-takers are presented with a brief argument, either in the form of a letter to an editor, a summary of research in a magazine or journal, or a pitch for a new business. While the exact prompt can vary slightly, it is usually something along the lines of this: Write a response in which you discuss what specific evidence is needed to evaluate the argument and explain how the evidence would weaken or strengthen the argument.

The beauty of the assignment is that it has clearly defined parameters – there is effectively no way for students to go outside the bounds of the situation described – yet allows for considerable flexibility. The situations are also general and neutral enough that no specific outside knowledge, terminology, or coursework is necessary to evaluate arguments concerning them.

In short, it is a solid, fair, well-designed task that reveals a considerable amount about students’ ability to think logically, present and organize their ideas in writing, evaluate claims/evidence, and “dialogue” with differing points of view while still maintaining a clear focus on their own argument.

There is absolutely no reason this assignment could not have been adapted for younger students. It would have eliminated any temptation for students to invent (personal) examples while providing an excellent snapshot of analytical writing ability and remaining more or less universally accessible. It also would have been perfectly consistent with the redesigned exam’s focus on “evidence.”

Instead, the College Board essentially created a diluted rhetorical strategy essay, taken from the AP English Composition exam — a very specific, subject-based essay that many students will lack prior experience writing. Students are given 50 minutes (double the current 25) to read a passage of about 750 words in response to the following prompt:

As you read the passage below, consider how the author uses

  • evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
  • reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
  • stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.

Write an essay in which you explain how the author builds an argument to persuade his/her audience that xxx. In your essay, analyze how the author uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his/her argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.

Your essay should not explain whether you agree with the author’s claims, but rather explain how the author builds an argument to persuade his/her audience.

Before I go any further, I want to make something clear: I am not in any way opposed to asking students to engage closely with texts, or to analyzing how authors construct their arguments, or to requiring the use of textual evidence to support one’s arguments. Most of my work is devoted to teaching people to do these very things.

What I am opposed to is an assignment that directly contradicts claims of increased equity by testing skills only a small percentage of test-takers have been given the opportunity to acquire; that misrepresents the amount and type of knowledge needed to complete the assignment effectively; and that purports to reflect the type of work that students will do in college but that is actually very far removed from what the vast majority of actual college work entails.

In my next post, I’ll start to look at these issues more closely.

1 Response

  1. F. Smith

    There are also viable alternatives on some of the better state proficiency exams that would be more accessible than the new SAT essay format. The old CT High School CAPT test had a couple of writing tasks that could have worked perfectly. First, there was a Response to Literature section. This section required students to read a short story, and then respond to some short answers, and an essay question: How successful was the author in creating a good piece of literature? Use examples from the story to explain your thinking. There was also an interdisciplinary writing test that was basically a watered down DBQ (with common everyday documents or news clips instead of historical sources that could have worked even better, since pretty much every high school teaches students how to write a basic research paper. Whereas only high-end public schools/magnet schools, and private schools do much with rhetorical analysis outside of AP Language and Comp, and some high schools don’t even offer AP Language and Comp.

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