The next iteration of the dreaded SAT exam is slated for November 2, 2013. Approximately three million students take the test each year in the hopes of scoring high enough to gain admission to the college of their choice. In 2005, a writing section was added to the SAT in order, depending on who you ask, to comply with requirements of the massive and influential University of California system, become more competitive with the growing ACT exam or to provide a better indicator of collegiate success. The problem is the test itself encourages sloppy writing.
National Public Radio recently ran an interview with Anne Ruggles Gere, Director of the writing program at the University of Michigan who is clearly not a fan of the writing section. Professor Gere believes that the format of the essay portion, an entire persuasive style essay written in twenty-five minutes, fosters canned and sloppy prose. In addition, since high schools believe that one of their obligations is to prepare their students for success on the SAT, the schools teach to the test and, as a result, are teaching poor habits and poor writing.
Professor Gere elucidated “[W]hen you’re writing in only 25 minutes, you don’t have time to develop a clear, complex idea. You don’t have time to think about an audience. It makes students think of writing in the most simplistic, reductive ways. It emphasizes length of writing. It emphasizes: use big words and be sure to follow a very simple formula.” In addition, although the essays are supposed to be non-fiction, there is no barometer or even ability to determine that a point is untrue, misinterpreted or unsupported by facts. Professor Gere highlights one particular essay in which the student wrote about his whole family dying in a plane crash and no one, including the scorer, will ever know if that is actually true.
The criticism of the writing section is not limited to the format and how schools are teaching to it. Professor Gere is amongst several critics attacking the grading procedure of the writing portion. Scorers have to be able to read 20 essays in an hour and are given a bonus if they can read 30 in an hour. It simply isn’t possible to accurately evaluate and score an essay in two minutes. Since schools and prep centers are aware of this process, they often teach gimmicks that will help grab a scorer’s attention during what amounts to a skimming process.
While all of these criticisms may be valid, we generally don’t see much in the way of ideas or proposals for change. The writing section of the SAT may well be the ultimate Catch-22; we want to include writing in the exam but it is impossible to create a writing section that fits the criteria of a standardized exam. I’m no expert in the field and for all you know I could have made all of this up. But I’d probably get a decent score anyway.