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Write Up a Better Idea

July 13, 2002

Enduring three hours of the SAT is a coming-of-age tradition about as pleasant as being stuck in a car without air conditioning on a cross-country family trip. It's about to get worse.

Besides having to pencil in the bubbles, members of the high school class of 2006 will have the added torment of cranking out a short essay. Under University of California pressure, the College Board, which administers the SAT, has decided to evaluate students' writing skills. It underestimates the huge task ahead.

Look at it as an SAT math question: In the 2000-01 school year, the College Board administered 2.5 million SAT I tests. Assume that the same number of students will take the new test when it debuts. At least two graders will read each essay. If each grader reads, say, 100 of the 500-word essays, how many schoolteachers with surplus time and college professors willing to work for (presumably) next to nothing will it take to plod through all the essays? (Answer: 50,000.)

Many states already require every graduating high school student to take a writing exam. But most of these state tests, including California's, are graded on a pass/fail basis. The College Board's army of graders, which will get only one day of training, will rate each essay from 1 to 6 based on a scoring guide. If the grades of two readers differ by two or more points, the essay goes to a third reader.

The existing SAT II writing exam, one of the tests measuring knowledge in specific subjects, will be a model for the SAT I essay. The College Board insists that the SAT II writing test offers objective assessment--just 2% of essays go to a third grader. But few colleges require the SAT II writing test, and only 315,000 students took it in 2000-01. Evaluating 2.5 million essays written under the new SAT I requirements is a different matter.

For all its perceived faults, including alleged racial and gender bias, the SAT I offers college admissions officers a precise score based on multiple-choice questions with definitive answers. Adding graders will introduce interpretive quirks. The essays will reveal clues about their authors, and, consciously or not, graders will reward or punish accordingly. Maybe it will be only a one-point difference. But on a six-point scale, that's massive. The writing test will count for one-third of the SAT score.

Even if the rubric could root out subjectivity, it could also prove counterproductive. Like it or not, students will try to write to it. The template will value variety of sentence structure and range of vocabulary, for example. This could lead to vivid and clear writing--or verbose, pretentious writing with too many commas and adverbs.

In conclusion (a superfluous phrase that begins the last paragraph of many poorly written essays), the SAT essay might assuage testers' guilt and appease critics but do nothing to help beleaguered admissions officers or deserving students. The College Board must address these concerns before rolling out a national writing test.

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