26 December 2015

On the new SAT essay, pt. 4: right kind of text, wrong kind of reading

For the last part in this series, I want to consider the College Board’s claim that the redesigned SAT essay is representative of the type of assignments students will do in college.

Let’s start by considering the sorts of passages that students are asked to analyze.

As I previously discussed, the redesigned SAT essay is based on the rhetorical essay from the AP English Language and Composition (AP Comp) exam. While they comprise a wide range of themes, styles, and periods, the passages chosen for that test are usually selected because they are exceptionally interesting from a rhetorical standpoint. Even if the works they are excerpted from would most likely be studied in their social/historical context in an actual college class, it makes sense to study them from a strictly rhetorical angle as well. Different types of reading can be appropriate for different situation, and this type of reading in this particular context is well justified.

In contrast, the texts chosen for analysis on the new SAT essay are essentially the type of humanities and social science passages that routinely appear on the current SAT – serious, moderately challenging contemporary pieces intended for an educated general adult audience. To be sure, this type of writing is not completely straightforward: ideas and points of views are often presented in a manner that is subtler than what most high school readers are accustomed to, and authors are likely to make use of the “they say/I say” model, dialoguing with and responding to other people’s ideas. Most students will in fact do a substantial amount of this type of reading in college.

By most academic standards, however, these types of passages would not be considered rhetorical models. It is possible to analyze them rhetorically – it is possible to analyze pretty much anything rhetorically – but a more relevant question is why anyone would want to analyze them rhetorically. Simply put, there usually isn’t all that much to say. As a result, it’s entirely unsurprising that students will resort to flowery, overblown descriptions that are at odds with actual moderate tone and content of the passages. In fact, that will often be the only way that students can produce an essay that is sufficiently lengthy to receive a top score.

There are, however, a couple of even more serious issues.

First, although the SAT essay technically involves an analysis, it is primarily a descriptive essay in the sense that students are not expected to engage with either the ideas in the text or offer up any ideas of their own. With exceedingly few exceptions, however, the writing that students are asked to do in college with be thesis-driven in the traditional sense – that is, students will be required to formulate their own original arguments, which they then support with various pieces of specific evidence (facts, statistics, anecdotes, etc.) Although they may be expected to take other people’s ideas into account and “dialogue” with them, they will generally be asked to do so as a launching pad for their own ideas. They may on occasion find it necessary to discuss how a particular author presents his or her evidence in order to consider a particular nuance or implication, but almost never will they spend an entire assignment focusing exclusively on the manner in which someone else presents an argument. So although the skills tested on the SAT essay may in some cases be a useful component of college work, the essay itself has virtually nothing to do with the type of assignments students will actually be expected to complete in college.

By the way, for anyone who wants understand the sort of work that students will genuinely be expected to do in college, I cannot recommend Gerald Graff and Cathy Birkenstein’s They Say/I Say strongly enough. This is a book written by actual freshman composition instructors with decades of experience. Suffice it to say that it doesn’t have much to do with what the test-writers at the College Board imagine that college assignments look like.

Now for the second point: the “evidence” problem.

As I’ve mentioned before, the SAT essay prompt does not explicitly ask students to provide a rhetorical analysis; rather, it asks them to consider how the writer uses “evidence” to build his or her argument. That sounds like a reasonable task on the surface, but it falls apart pretty quickly once you start to consider its implications.

When students do the type of reading that the SAT essay tests in college, it will pretty much always be in the context of a particular subject (sociology, anthropology, economics, etc.). By definition, non-fiction is both dependent on and engaged with the world outside the text. There is no way to analyze that type of writing meaningfully or effectively without taking that context into account. Any linguistic or rhetorical analysis would always be informed by a host of other, external factors that pretty much any professor would expect a student to discuss. There is a reason that “close reading” is normally associated with fiction and poetry, whose meanings are far less dependent on outside factors. Any assignment that asks students to analyze a non-fiction author’s use of evidence without considering the surrounding context is therefore seriously misrepresenting what it means to use evidence in the real world.

In college and in the working world, the primary focus is never just on how evidence is presented, but rather how valid that evidence is. You cannot simply present any old facts that happen to be consistent with the claim you are making – those facts must actually be true, and any competent analysis must take that factor into account. The fact that professors and employers complain that students/employees have difficulty using evidence does not mean that the problem can be solved just by turning “evidence” into a formal skill. Rather, I would argue that the difficulties students and employees have in using evidence effectively is actually a symptom of a deeper problem, namely a lack of knowledge and perhaps a lack of exposure to (or an unwillingness to consider) a variety of perspectives.

If you are writing a Sociology paper, for example, you cannot simply state that the author of a particular study used statistics to support her conclusion, or worse, claim that an author’s position is “convincing” or “effective,” or that it constitutes a “rich analysis” because the author uses lots of statistics as evidence. Rather, you are responsible for evaluating the conditions under which those statistics were gathered; for understanding the characteristics of the groups used to obtain those statistics; and for determining what factors may not have been taken into account in the gathering of those statistics. You are also expected to draw on socio-cultural, demographic, and economic information about the population being studied, about previous studies in which that population was involved, and about the conclusions drawn from those studies.

I could go on like this for a while, but I think you probably get the picture.

As I discussed in my last post, some of the sample essays posted by the College Board show a default position commonly adopted by many students who aren’t fully sure how to navigate the type of analysis the new SAT essay requires – something I called “praising the author.” Because the SAT is such an important test, they assume that any author whose work appears on it must be a pretty big. As a result, they figure that they can score some easy points by cranking up the flattery. Thus, authors are described as “brilliant” and “passionate” and “renowned,” even if they are none of those things.

As a result, the entire point of the assignment is lost. Ideally, the goal of close reading is to understand how an author’s argument works as precisely as possible in order to formulate a cogent and well-reasoned response. The goal is to comprehend, not to judge or praise. Otherwise, the writer risks setting up straw men and arguing in relation to positions that they author does not actually take.

The sample essay scoring, however, implies something different and potentially quite problematic. When students are rewarded for offering up unfounded praise and judgments, they can easily acquire the illusion that they are genuinely qualified to evaluate professional writers and scholars, even if their own composition skills are at best middling and they lack any substantial knowledge about a subject. As a result, they can end up confused about what academic writing entails, and about what is and is not appropriate/conventional (which again brings us back to They Say/I Say).

These are not theoretical concerns for me; I have actually tutored college students who used these techniques in their writing.

My guess is that a fair number of colleges will recognize just how problematic an assignment the new essay is and deem it optional. But that in turn creates an even larger problem. Colleges cannot very well go essay-optional on the SAT and not the ACT. So what will happen, I suspect, is that many colleges that currently require the ACT with Writing will drop that requirement as well – and that means highly selective colleges will be considering applications without a single example of a student’s authentic, unedited writing. Bill Fitzsimmons at Harvard came out so early and so strongly in favor of the SAT redesign that it would likely be too much of an embarrassment to renege later, and Princeton, Yale, and Stanford will presumably continue to go along with whatever Harvard does. Aside from those four schools, however, all bets are probably off.

If that shift does in fact occur, then no longer will schools be able to flag applicants whose standardized-test essays are strikingly different from their personal essays. There will be even less of a way to tell what is the result of a stubborn 17 year-old locking herself in her room and refusing to show her essays to anyone, and what is the work of a parent or an English teacher… or a $500/hr. consultant.

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