18 December 2015

On the new SAT essay, pt. 3: what is actually expected…and can you still make things up?

In response to my previous post on the equity issues surrounding the redesigned SAT essay, one reader had this to say:

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)

That’s a fair point. I didn’t actually mean to imply in my earlier post that students would actually need to be experts in rhetoric in order to score well  – my goal was primarily to point out the mismatch between the background a student would need to seriously be able to complete the assignment, and the sort of background the most students will actually bring to the assignment.  

For a good gauge of what is likely to happen, consider the French AP exam, which was revised a couple of years ago to be more holistic and “relevant.” It now includes a synthesis essay that is well beyond what most AP French students can write. The result? Score inflation. A similar phenomenon is inevitable here: when there is such a big mismatch between ideal and reality, the only way for the College Boart to avoid embarrassment and promote the illusion that students are actually doing college-level work is assign high scores to reasonably competent work that does not actually demonstrate mastery but that throws in a few fancy flourishes, and solid passing scores to work that is only semi-component.

So I agree halfway. Something like what the reader describes is probably going to be a pretty reliable formula, albeit one that many students will need tutoring to figure out. But that said, I suspect that it will be one for churning out solid, mid-range essays, not top-scoring ones. Here’s why:

While looking through the examples provided by the College Board, I noticed something interesting: out of all the essays, exactly one made extensive use of “fancy” rhetorical terminology (anecdote, allusion, pathos, dichotomy). Would you like to guess which one? If you said the only essay to earn top scores in each of the three rubric categories, you’d be right.

What this suggests to me is that the redesigned essay will in fact be vulnerable to many of the same “inflation” techniques that many high-scoring students already employ. As Katherine Beals and Barry Garelick’s recent Atlantic article discussed, the only way to assess learning is to look for “markers” typically associated with comprehension/mastery. A problem arises, however, when the goal becomes solely to exhibit the markers of mastery without actually mastering anything – and standardized test- essays are nothing if not famous for being judged on markers of mastery rather than on substance.

The current SAT essay, of course, has been criticized for encouraging fake “fancy” writing – bombastic, flowery prose stuffed full of ten-dollar words, and there is absolutely nothing to suggest that this will change. In fact, the new essay is likely to encourage that type of writing just as much, if not more, than the old one.

Indeed, the top-scoring examples include some truly cringe-worthy turns of phrase. For example, consider one student’s statement that “This dual utilization of claims from two separate sources conveys to Gioia’s audience the sense that the skills built through immersion in the arts are vital to succeeding in the modern workplace which aids in logically leading his audience to the conclusion that a loss of experience with the arts may foreshadow troubling results.”

Not to mention this: “In paragraph 5, Gioia utilizes a synergistic reference to two separate sources of information that serves to provide a stronger compilation of support for his main topic” (https://collegereadiness.collegeboard.org/sample-questions/essay/2, last example).

And this: “In order to achieve proper credibility and stir emotion, undeniable facts must reside in passage.”

This is the sort of prose that makes freshman (college) composition instructors tear their hair out. Is this what the College Board means by “college readiness?”

Furthermore, if the use of fancy terminology correlates with high scores, why not exploit that correspondence and simply pump out essays stuffed to the gills with exotic terms, with little regard for whether they describe what is actually occurring in the text? As long as the description is sufficiently flowery, those sorts of details are likely to slip by unnoticed.

In fact, why not go a step further and simply make up some Greek-sounding literary terms? Essay graders are unlikely to spend more than the current two minutes scoring essays; they don’t have the time or the liberty to check whether obscure rhetorical terms actually exist. Some really smart kids with a slightly twisted sense of humor will undoubtedly decide to have some fun at the College Board’s expense. Heck, if I could force myself to wake up at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning, I’d be tempted to go and do it myself.

Another observation: as discussed in an earlier post, one of the key goals of the SAT essay redesign was to stop students from making up information. But even that seems to have failed: lacking sufficient background information about the work they are analyzing, students will simply resort to conjecture. For example, the writer of the essay scoring 4/3/4 states that Bogard (the author of the first sample passage) is “respected,” and that “he has done his research.” Exactly how would the student know that Bogard is “respected?” Or that he even did research? (Maybe he just found the figures in a magazine somewhere.) Or that the figures he cites are even accurate?

It is of course reasonable to assume those things are true, but strictly speaking, the student is “stepping outside the four corners of the text” and making inferences that he or she cannot “prove” objectively. So despite the College Board’s adamant insistence that essays rely strictly on the information provided in the passages, the inclusion of these sorts of statements in a high-scoring sample essay certainly suggests that the boundary between “inside” and “outside” the text is somewhat more flexible than it would appear.

The point, of course, is that it is extraordinarily difficult, if not downright impossible, to remain 100% within the “four corners” of a non-fiction text and still write an analysis that makes any sense at all – particularly if one lacks the ability to identify a wide range of rhetorical figures. Of course students will resort to making up plausible-sounding information to pad their arguments. And based on the sample essays, it certainly seems that they will continue to be rewarded for doing so.

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