News that verbal SAT scores showed no growth nationally came as no surprise to me. I have been frustrated for years by poor performance from smart kids who, in my professional opinion, should do much better. We must be doing something wrong. In an effort to shed some light on what that something was, a few months ago I sat for the exam myself.
The air inside the shabby classroom shimmered with tension. Both proctor and teenage test-takers had far too much on their minds to notice the presence of an unlikely, 40-something candidate sitting for this exam. I sharpened my pencils, set my watch on the desk the way I saw other students doing and tried to focus on the droning instructions being read aloud. It wasn't easy.
The logic behind putting myself through this ordeal was to experience what sitting for the SAT II felt like for my students and to figure out how well high school curriculum matched the skills required for these high-stakes tests. I have always taken a rabid anti-test-prep stance. I believed course work in English should remain pure, focusing on literary analysis and development of student writing. I was sure that such instruction prepared my students just fine for any qualifying exams they would ever have to face.
The SAT II subject tests that I was sitting for used to be known as achievement tests. They are hour-long, primarily multiple-choice tests in specific subjects. Unlike the SAT I, which measures general abilities, these tests measure students' knowledge of particular subjects and their ability to apply that knowledge. Many colleges, including the University of California, require that applicants submit scores for these tests, one of which often must be the writing exam. Most of the students I talked with in line outside the test center were juniors in high school taking three tests at one sitting, typically writing, mathematics and chemistry or biology.
I am delighted to report that current high school curriculum in writing, properly executed, prepares students extremely well for the portion of the writing exam in which they actually are asked to write. The questions are similar to the writing assignments students often face in school. The rubric used to evaluate the writing sample is congruent with what most teachers have been using for years. The biggest challenge for test-takers is the length of time allotted: 20 minutes to plan and execute their essays. The literature test is made up of five passages or poems. Students must read and answer multiple-choice questions based on each text. The literature was chosen from a broad range of authors and time periods. My exam included a passage from Bharati Mukherjee's "Jasmine," a portion of a Zora Neale Hurston essay and a John Donne poem. Again, I think this reflects the blend of classical and contemporary literature that is being taught in most high school classrooms.
But the news is not all good. The multiple-choice portion of the writing test is brutal. According to the College Board, the test "measures students' ability to express ideas effectively in standard written English, to recognize faults in usage and structure and to use language with sensitivity to meaning." Even after working through several practice tests, I found the errors that I was being asked to identify subtle and confusing. I know that I have not adequately prepared my students to face such questions. For years, I have taught skills within the context of student writing, correcting their sentences and discussing commonly made errors with the whole class. The weakness of this method is that many students never generate the kind of complex constructions the SAT requires them to analyze.
This does not mean that we should return to a drill and worksheet approach to teaching English. But we do need to be more systematic and intentional about how we teach students the structure of their language. Very few teenagers' speech patterns replicate standard written English. If students are not taught formal usage in school, there is little chance they will ever acquire it. I am troubled by the possibility that only those who can afford expensive test preparation tutorials will succeed on the SATs. All students deserve to be prepared.
I tore open the envelope containing my results with considerable trepidation, my mind racing. What if I blew it? How could I face the students who took the exam with me? What possessed me to do this in the first place? Fortunately, my worries were unfounded. I earned a perfect score (800) in writing and a 790 in literature. I knew I missed that question about iambic hexameters when I answered it. You can bet I am going to make sure my students don't, though.