Notes on the Atrocities
Like a 100-watt radio station, broadcasting to the dozens...


Saturday, February 21, 2004  

This is a little random, but as I wean myself from hard politics in anticipation of MOVIE WEEK on Monday (mark your calendars), let me draw your attention to the latest incursion on the written word: the SAT test. Yes, that venerable, derided, friend-to-the-white-and-wealthy test now includes a written component. Seems like a good idea on the face of it, right? Had I been offered a written component back in 1985, it might have mitigated my abysmal 480 math score.

Except that it wouldn't.

The test, as described in the Atlantic's current issue, is essentially a mathmatic equation with words standing in for the numbers. The resulting essay, unsurprisingly, will generally contain poor writing.

We and our colleagues at The Princeton Review have spent many years training students to take the SAT II, and have carefully analyzed the College Board's essay-grading criteria. To receive a high score a student should write a long essay of three or more paragraphs, with each paragraph containing topic and concluding sentences and at least one sentence that includes the words "for example." Whenever possible the student should use polysyllabic words where shorter, clearer words would suffice. The SAT essay will not be a place to take rhetorical chances. Flair will win no points; the highest-scoring essays will be earnest, long-winded, and predictable.

On a personal note, I knew of the SAT's failings even before seeing this article, because a twin version appears on the grad school version, the GRE, which my significant other (Sally) took late last year. She didn't do as well as she would have hoped. This isn't surprising, because she's a fantastic writer. Her prose is original, clear, and accessible--just what the College Board now instructs its graders to punish.

The article in the Atlantic is called "Would Shakespeare Get Into Swarthmore?" I find it ironic, because that's the school Sally went to, after a nearly flawless performance on a 1980s version of the SAT.

posted by Jeff | 11:26 AM |
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