Monday, March 26, 2007

The SAT is broken

Les Perelman, director of MIT's director of the Writing Across the Curriculum program, continues to call attention to the absurd premises that underlie the recently-added essay section of the College Board's SAT. The high scores of a student who prepared for the test with Professor Perelman's guidance suggest what the College Board values in writing: big words ("myriad" and "plethora" are said to be favorites), weighty examples (whether or not they're relevant or accurately stated), and the magical five-paragraph formula.

Which is to say: the standards for the SAT essay run counter to everything a competent college teacher tries to make clear to students: that big words are not the key to good writing, that details and examples need to carefully chosen and relevant and grounded in fact, and that the number of paragraphs in an essay must be dictated by the writer's ideas and purpose. (There is no magic number.)

Here's an excerpt from the essay that Perelman's student wrote to test the test. I'm assuming that all the errors are intentional:

American president Franklin Delenor Roosevelt advocated for civil unity despite the communist threat of success by quoting 'the only thing we need to fear is itself,' which desdained competition as an alternative to cooperation for success. In the end, the American economy pulled out of the depression and succeeded communism.
Two College Board scorers gave the essay a 5, the second highest score possible.
Fooling the College Board (Inside Higher Ed)
Essay by Perelman's student (Download, 26 KB .doc file)
Words, words, words (Previous blog post on Professor Perelman's criticism of the College Board)

comments: 5

Anonymous said...

I have never really understood the purpose of an entrance exam and letter writing for post secondary schools in the US. There are so many tests now that the only people getting anything out of the exercise is the people who write the test and the people who publish the prep manuals.

I think maybe a test to see where your academic strengths are so you could perhaps choose a program that played to your strengths might be okay. Of course sometimes the gifts students have in secondary school are crushed by teachers who are bitter and uninterested in the intellectual growth of sutdents.

And while we are at it ...why do so many post secondary institutions seem hellbent to have formulaic degree programs?

I am just so glad that was not my route through a B.A.

Lee said...

The result of that essay test is scary.

Michael Leddy said...

SMM: Many students seem not to follow the obvious (to me) route of figuring out what they really like and getting good at it. I think too many students graduate high school with very little idea of what their strengths are. (My only evidence is anecdotal, from talking with my students and asking them such questions.)

Rigid programs seem to go along with the discourses of assessment and "learning outcomes": the idea that if everyone has the same curriculum, somehow the vessels will emerge at the end of the assembly line all filled with the same ingredients. (Cf. Dickens, Hard Times.)

Lee: I read my second-semester college freshmen the passage about Roosevelt, and they were appalled. All is not lost! But it drives me crazy to think of people in positions of authority (College Board evaluators) judging by ludicrous standards.

Jim Swindle said...

A test is no better than the people who write it and no better than the people who grade it. When I was about 7 I came home from school indignant, having been graded down for having answered "yes" to "Is the moon out at noon?"

My father wisely explained that the people who wrote the test didn't expect me to know that.

On the whole, I think tests are fairly good at separating the good from the bad. They are much worse at separating the magnificent from the mediocre. To test magnificence, the test creators and graders would have to be capable of recognizing magnificence themselves.

Michael Leddy said...

My kids have had similar problems with ambiguous and unthoughtful test questions, Jim. It drives them crazy when they are up against a "right" answer to a crummy question.