13 December 2015

On the new SAT essay, pt. 2: equity

In my previous post, I introduced some of background issues surrounding the new SAT essay. Here, I’d like to examine to examine how the redesigned essay, rather than make the SAT a fairer test as the College Board claims, will likely provide further advantages to a small, already privileged segment of the test-taking population.

Let’s start with the fact that the new essay was adapted from the rhetorical essay on the AP English Language and Composition (AP Comp) exam.

To be sure, the colleges that require the essay are likely to draw many applicants enrolled in AP Comp as juniors, but there will still undoubtedly be tens of thousands of students sitting for the SAT essay who are not enrolled in AP Comp, or whose schools do not even offer that class. Many other students whose schools do offer AP Comp may not take it until senior year, well after they’ve taken their first SAT. And then there will be students who are enrolled in AP Comp as juniors but who spend class talking in small groups with their classmates and not ever being taught about rhetorical analysis. (Based on my own experience tutoring AP Comp, I suspect that many students fall into that last category.) What sort of value is there in asking so many students to write an essay that they are totally unprepared to write? 

The College Board, of course, has attempted to make the essay appear more egalitarian by insisting that no particular terminology or background knowledge is required, and that students can find all the information they need in the passage. Whereas the AP Comp prompt explicitly asks students to analyze the rhetorical choices…an author makes in order to develop her/her argument, the College Board deliberately avoids use of the term “rhetoric” for the SAT essay, opting for the more neutral “evidence and reasoning” and stylistic or persuasive elements,” and giving the impression that the assignment is wide open by asserting that students may also analyze features of [their] own choice.

The problem is that this type of formal, written textual analysis is a highly artificial task. It involves a very particular type of abstract thought, one that really only exists in school. (I suspect that the only American students seriously studying rhetoric at a high level are budding classicists at a handful of very, very elite mostly private schools – a minuscule percentage of test-takers.) Learning to notice, to divide, to label, to categorize, to enter into a text and describe the order and logic by which it functions… These are not instinctive ways of reading; learning to do these things well takes considerable practice. If students don’t acquire this particular skill set in school, and more particularly in English class, they almost certainly won’t acquire it anywhere else. Of all the things tested on the new SAT, this is the one Khan Academy is least equipped to handle. 

It also strikes me as naïve and more than a little bit misleading to insist that this type of analysis can be performed by any old student if the technical aspect is removed – that is, if students write “appeal to emotion” rather than pathos. Yes, it is possible to write a top-scoring essay that employs nothing but plain old Anglo-Saxon words, but in most cases, the students most capable of even faking their way through a rhetorical analysis will be precisely the ones who have learned the formal terms. Students don’t somehow acquire skills simply from being allowed to express themselves in non-technical language. 

The choice to adopt this particular template for the SAT essay was, I imagine, based on the presumption that Common Core would sweep through classrooms across the United States, with all students spending their English periods diligently practicing for college and career readiness by combing through non-fiction passages, finding “evidence” (the text means what it means because it says what it says) and identifying “appeals to emotion and authority.”

Needless to say, that reality has not materialized; however, the SAT is based on the assumption that it would.

So whereas smart, solid writers who didn’t do much of anything in English class had as good a chance as anyone else at doing well on the pre-2016 essay, smart, solid writers who have not been given practice in this particular type of writing in English class will now be at a much larger disadvantage. There will of course be the extreme outliers who can sit themselves down with a prep book, read over a few examples, and start churning out flawless expository prose, but they will be the exceptions that prove the rule.

As for the rest, well… let’s just say the new essay is basically the College Board’s gift to the tutoring industry.

2 Responses

  1. I read a few of the essay prompts and honestly they seem like a joke. Essentially, each prompt asked for the exact same thing, it’s almost like CB is just screaming “MAKE A TEMPLATE” because all students need to do is plug in the author’s name, cite an example, and put a quote here and there and if it’s surrounded by prepared fancy sentences, they’ve got an easy 12. (or whatever it is now)

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