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Lucky Us: The SAT, Take 2

The addition of an essay question to the test causes some pro wordsmiths to slip back into high school mode


The essay question, like so many things in life, divides people into two discrete camps: Those who view it with anxiety and a sense of doom, and those who see it as their only real chance of survival in school. If blessed with a certain facility for words, a student can often present limited, or even wrong, information in such a way that it seems insightful or creative.

These are the kids who often hand in plays or poetry as their final projects in classes where, perhaps, a footnoted research paper might be more appropriate--astronomy, say, or biology. The kids who might let a grade slip just a tad so they can pull all-nighters at the campus newspaper or magazine office. The kids who often wind up writing mid-list novels, doing time for fraud or working as reporters for city dailies.

Three weeks ago, the Trustees of the College Board voted to add an essay question to the SAT, which is used by many colleges and universities to evaluate applicants. For years, educators have debated the usefulness, and morality, of standardized testing, and though it remains a widespread requirement, it has gone through many modifications.

The most recent changes occurred after the University of California, the biggest client of the SAT, threatened to switch to another test. They include the new handwritten essay question, the deletion of a time-honored analogies section and questions on advanced algebra. College Board officials hope the new version will provide a more well-rounded evaluation of what a student knows and can comprehend, which is an admirable goal.

It's just too bad it can't have a grandfather clause. Hearing of the new writing section, many of us grown-ups were doused with a sense of frustrated vindication. As we had suspected for so long, the quiet desperation of our lives was indeed due to being ahead of our time. Had there been an essay question on the SAT in our day, no doubt we'd all be living the high life today.

And yet. How easy is it to write an essay under such circumstances even for those who love to write? Even for those who do it every day. In 20 to 30 minutes, with no computer, no helpful copy editor, no Google, no co-worker who actually knows how to spell "adjudicate." Just you and that blue book and those No. 2 pencils with the clock gobbling up the minutes of your future, of your destiny, like a 5-year-old popping bubble wrap. No deadline extensions, no blaming it on AOL. What kind of prose could possibly come from conditions such as these?

Ten reporters from throughout this newspaper agreed to try to find out. They answered a question, provided by the College Board, similar to those that will be included in the new SATs. Conditions were as authentic as possible--in a stuffy silent room there were blue books and No. 2 pencils, there was a non-gum-chewing proctor (although I also took the test, which was probably cheating somehow) with a watch borrowed from a reliable source.

No one save the proctor knew the question until the clock began. The Trustees of the College Board said it would be a 20- to 30-minute exercise, so we compromised on 25, but the essay was the only part of the test we took, which certainly gave us an advantage over 11th-graders stuck in a classroom filling in bubbles for three hours. That and the fact that we write on deadline for a living.

The good news is we all passed. According to Tom Ewing at the Educational Testing Center, the two professional graders who read the essays were not told who had written them but caught on almost immediately (which wasn't really hard since many essays made reference to journalistic careers or to the exercise itself. But even in those that didn't, Ewing said, "it was pretty obvious that these were adults, and seasoned writers").

Seasoned writing is apparently not always a good thing. Almost all of the participants chose to write narratives rather than academic analyses, which, one scorer noted, "made it difficult to judge the kind of verbal reasoning the writers might, or might not, have." A "faux-ironic mocking tone," they felt, permeated several of the essays. Furthermore, there was, according to Ewing, "an almost mechanical skill indicative of people who write for a living that made them less authentic." Ouch.

Reporters' Scores Come as a Relief

But as everyone who's taken the SAT knows, the important thing is the score and most of us got perfect 6s. Which was a big relief, since the participants were not just risking public professional humiliation but also dancing with the ultimate anxiety dream--you know, the one in which you discover that your college degree and all subsequent achievement has mysteriously been rendered null and void and so you must repeat all of high school, often in your underwear.

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