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May 04, 2005

BREVITY IS THE SOUL OF WIT -- but prolixity is the key to a high S.A.T. score:

In the next weeks, Dr. Perelman studied every graded sample SAT essay that the College Board made public. He looked at the 15 samples in the ScoreWrite book that the College Board distributed to high schools nationwide to prepare students for the new writing section. He reviewed the 23 graded essays on the College Board Web site meant as a guide for students and the 16 writing "anchor" samples the College Board used to train graders to properly mark essays.

He was stunned by how complete the correlation was between length and score. "I have never found a quantifiable predictor in 25 years of grading that was anywhere near as strong as this one," he said. "If you just graded them based on length without ever reading them, you'd be right over 90 percent of the time." The shortest essays, typically 100 words, got the lowest grade of one. The longest, about 400 words, got the top grade of six. In between, there was virtually a direct match between length and grade.

He was also struck by all the factual errors in even the top essays. . . .

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.

Sigh.

UPDATE: More criticism here:

The new writing tests that have been added to both the SAT and the ACT:
A. Are unlikely to predict success in college writing.
B. Will send high school writing instruction in the wrong direction.
C. Reward those who write “conventional truisms and platitudes about life.”
D. All of the above.

According to the National Council of Teachers of English, the answer is D. The council released an analysis of the new writing tests Tuesday, and it found little to like and much to dislike.

On the other hand, I think it's very important that actual writing ability be tested, somehow, and I hope that this criticism doesn't cause ETS to abandon the effort. Reading further in the article, I see that some of the critics are basically hostile to the idea of a short, extemporaneous writing assignment. I completely disagree with that position; the ability to write quickly and well about all sorts of topics is only going to become more important in coming decades.

UPDATE: Kimberly Swygert defends the test and critiques the critics, in particular the NCTE:

Given that the essay section was developed because young men and women were graduating from high school with no writing skills whatsover, it's disheartening to see the NCTE latch onto this essay - which has been operational for a grand total of two months - as though it, and it alone, can really bring down writing education in the US. . . .

I'd say there are plenty of other people doing that.