Dr. Perelman contacted the College Board and was surprised to learn that on the new SAT essay, students are not penalized for incorrect facts. The official guide for scorers explains: "Writers may make errors in facts or information that do not affect the quality of their essays. For example, a writer may state 'The American Revolution began in 1842' or "'Anna Karenina," a play by the French author Joseph Conrad, was a very upbeat literary work."' (Actually, that's 1775; a novel by the Russian Leo Tolstoy; and poor Anna hurls herself under a train.) No matter. "You are scoring the writing, and not the correctness of facts."
How to prepare for such an essay? "I would advise writing as long as possible," said Dr. Perelman, "and include lots of facts, even if they're made up." This, of course, is not what he teaches his M.I.T. students. "It's exactly what we don't want to teach our kids," he said.
SAT graders are told to read an essay just once and spend two to three minutes per essay, and Dr. Perelman is now adept at rapid-fire SAT grading. This reporter held up a sample essay far enough away so it could not be read, and he was still able to guess the correct grade by its bulk and shape. "That's a 4," he said. "It looks like a 4."
A report released this week by the National Council of Teachers of English mirrors Dr. Perelman's criticism of the new SAT essay. It cautions that a single, 25-minute writing test ignores the most basic lesson of writing -- that good writing is rewriting. It warns that the SAT is pushing schools toward "formulaic" writing instruction.
This is a far cry from all the hoopla when the new SAT was announced two years ago. College Board officials described it as a tool that could transform American education, forcing schools to better teach writing. A "great social experiment," Time magazine said.
In an interview, five top College Board officials strongly defended the writing test but sounded more muted about its usefulness. "The SAT essay should not be the primary way kids learn to write," said Wayne Camara, vice president for research. "It's one basic writing skill. If that's all the writing your high school English department is teaching, you have a problem."
They said that while there was a correlation between writing long and a high score, it was not as significant as Dr. Perelman stated. Graders also reward good short essays, they said, but the College Board erred by failing to release such samples to the public. "We will change that," said Chiara Coletti, a vice president.
As to facts not mattering, they said it was a necessary accommodation on such a short, high-pressure test. "We know students don't write well when they're anxious," said Ed Hardin, a College Board test specialist. "We don't want them not to go forward with that little detail. Our attitude is go right ahead with that missing date or fact and readers should be instructed not to count off for that."
Cynics say the new essay is window dressing added to placate California officials who in 2001 were calling the old SAT outmoded and were threatening to stop requiring it. In a recent paper, Edward White of the University of Arizona notes, "As long ago as 1999, in College Board Report No. 99-3, a research team pointed out that 'writing assessments based on a single essay, even those read and scored twice, have extremely low reliability."'
Indeed, the College Board's own advanced placement tests require multiple essays, but officials say that is not possible for the SAT, which at nearly four hours, is being criticized as too long.
"You can't base a lot on one essay," Dr. Camara of the College Board admitted. He said that was why the new SAT writing section also included 49 multiple-choice questions on grammar and style. Multiple-choice counts for 75 percent of the new writing grade; the essay 25 percent. "The multiple-choice makes the writing test valid," he says. In short, the most untrustworthy part of the new SAT writing section is the writing sample.
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Wondering about the new SAT essay scoring rubric? We’ve got that, and more!
It’s a fact of academic life that you need to write essays. You’ve done it in high school and you’ll write even more in college. Unless you’re in a creative writing class – and sometimes even then – you’ll be given directions about the format and general topic of the essay, and how well you follow those directions counts in your grade. The same thing applies to the SAT essay. It’s optional, as you know, but we encourage you to write it for some really good reasons; see Should I take the New SAT Essay for more about those reasons.
While your high school and college essays are probably read and graded by the teacher or teaching assistant, your SAT essays are read and scored by professionals who are trained to assess the essay in terms of exactly what the SAT is looking for in a good essay. There’s nothing ambiguous about the scoring criteria; the SAT has it down to a science.
SAT readers/scorers are generally high school or college teachers with experience in reading and grading essays. They’re thoroughly trained, have to pass tests to qualify as SAT readers, and once certified, are expected to absolutely conform to the scoring rubric—no personal opinions, no comments—just a number score from the rubric. Two scorers read each essay and if their scores diverge too much, a third reader scores it as well. Each reader gives a score of 1-4 for each of three criteria, the two scores are added, and the student gets three essay scores ranging from 2-8, one for each criterion.
So what are the criteria that readers so rigidly follow?
New SAT Essay Scoring Criteria
- Demonstrates little or no comprehension of the source text
- Fails to show an understanding of the text’s central idea(s), and may include only details without reference to central idea(s)
- May contain numerous errors of fact and/or interpretation with regard to the text
- Makes little or no use of textual evidence
- Demonstrates some comprehension of the source text
- Shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) but not of important details
- May contain errors of fact and/or interpretation with regard to the text
- Makes limited and/or haphazard use of textual evidence
- Demonstrates effective comprehension of the source text
- Shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) and important details
- Is free of substantive errors of fact and interpretation with regard to the text
- Makes appropriate use of textual evidence
- Demonstrates thorough comprehension of the source text
- Shows an understanding of the text’s central idea(s) and most important details and how they interrelate
- Is free of errors of fact or interpretation with regard to the text
- Makes skillful use of textual evidence
- Demonstrates little or no cohesion and inadequate skill in the use and control of language
- May lack a clear central claim or controlling idea
- Lacks a recognizable introduction and conclusion; does not have a discernible progression of ideas
- Lacks variety in sentence structures; sentence structures may be repetitive; demonstrates general and vague word choice; word choice may be poor or inaccurate; may lack a formal style and objective tone
- Shows a weak control of the conventions of standard written English and may contain numerous errors that undermine the quality of writing
- Demonstrates little or no cohesion and limited skill in the use and control of language
- May lack a clear central claim or controlling idea or may deviate from the claim or idea
- May include an ineffective introduction and/or conclusion; may demonstrate some progression of ideas within paragraphs but not throughout
- Has limited variety in sentence structures; sentence structures may be repetitive; demonstrates general and vague word choice; word choice may be repetitive; may deviate noticeably from a formal style and objective tone
- Shows a limited control of the conventions of standard written English and contains errors that detract from the quality of writing and may impede understanding
- Is mostly cohesive and demonstrates effective use and control of language
- Includes a central claim or implicit controlling idea
- Includes an effective introduction and conclusion; demonstrates a clear progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay
- Has variety in sentence structures; demonstrates some precise word choice; maintains a formal style and objective tone
- Shows a good control of the conventions of standards written English and is free of significant errors that detract from the quality of writing
- Is cohesive and demonstrates highly effective use and command of language
- Includes a precise central claim
- Includes a skillful introduction and conclusion; demonstrates a deliberate and highly effective progression of ideas both within paragraphs and throughout the essay
- Has a wide variety in sentence structures; demonstrates consistent use of precise word choice; maintains a formal style and objective tone
- Shows a strong command of the conventions of standards written English and is free or virtually free of errors
- Offers little or no analysis or ineffective analysis of the source text and demonstrates little to no understanding of the analytical task
- Identifies without explanation some aspects of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s own choosing
- Numerous aspects of analysis are unwarranted based on the text
- Contains little or no support for claim(s) or point(s) made, or support is largely irrelevant
- May not focus on features of the text that are relevant to addressing the task
- Offers no discernible analysis (e.g., is largely or exclusively summary)
- Offers limited analysis of the source text and demonstrates only partial understanding of the analytical task
- Identifies and attempts to describe the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or feature(s) of the student’s own choosing, but merely asserts rather than explains their importance
- One or more aspects of analysis are unwarranted based on the text
- Contains little or no support for claim(s) or point(s) made
- May lack a clear focus on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task
- Offers an effective analysis of the source text and demonstrates an understanding of the analytical task
- Competently evaluates the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or features of the student’s own choosing
- Contains relevant and sufficient support for claim(s) or point(s) made
- Focuses primarily on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task
- Offers an insightful analysis of the source text and demonstrates a sophisticated understanding of the analytical task
- Offers a thorough, well-considered evaluation of the author’s use of evidence, reasoning, and/or stylistic and persuasive elements, and/or features of the student’s own choosing
- Contains relevant, sufficient, and strategically chosen support for claim(s) or point(s) made
- Focuses consistently on those features of the text that are most relevant to addressing the task
The essay components are Reading, Analysis, and Writing. Reading refers to how well you demonstrate understanding of the text; analysis covers how well you examine the structure and components of it, and writing, as you might expect, assesses your ability to write clear, correct, and cohesive prose.
There’s a lot of detail under each score, but note that for reading, the scores go from the highest, “thorough,” (4) to the lowest, “little or no comprehension” (1). In the middle are “some” and “effective,” scores of 3 and 4 respectively, and probably where most students score. More or less the same scale, with different words, also applies to analysis and writing. It’s worth reiterating that SAT readers are held exactly to this scale and the specific breakdown under each score.
Now here’s a question for you. How long do you think each reader is expected to spend on reading, assessing, and scoring the essay? The answer is a minute or two. What does that mean for you? You’ll have to know and follow directions, read the text with structure and the writer’s elements in mind, think clearly, and write strongly from the very beginning. That’s quite a challenge, but keep checking in this blog site and we’ll give you some really good tips about meeting the challenge and writing a essay with the winning score of 8-8-8.
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