Really smart critique of the SAT "Writing" test

This morning I read what I thought was about the smartest critique of the SAT writing test I’ve stumbled across to date: New SAT writing section scores low

You should read the article for yourself, but Franek carefully points out the problems of both the writing portion of the test and the grammar portion. And, in my reading, he does it without dismissing all standardized testing out of hand.

Let me quote from two portions of Franek’s article:

Second, the slew of multiple-choice questions about grammar that the College Board calls “improving sentences and paragraphs” is not what Shakespeare had in mind when he dipped his quill in the inkwell before sitting down to edit a draft.

From the board’s official Prep Booklet, here’s the first example of what to expect (possible errors appear in italics): “The students (a) have discovered that (b) they can address issues more effectively (c) through letter-writing campaigns (d) and not through public demonstrations. (e) No error.”

This sentence appears OK to me, even if it is a little clunky. According to the College Board, however, the error occurs at (d) because: “When a comparison is introduced by the adverb ‘more,’ as in ‘more effectively,’ the second part of the comparison must be introduced by the conjunction ‘than’ rather than ‘and not.’ “

Got that?

I’ve been writing and teaching English for a long time, and this question is pretty appalling to me, too. As Franek points out, the answer is not “d” per se; rather, the answer is a more complete rewrite of the sentence. And, as I think someone on the WPA mailing list pointed out, that might be an interesting way to go with the test: give students some passages like this to revise and then holistically score those revisions.

Of course, we’re not liable to get that or anything a whole lot better than what we’ve got for a while, and the reasons for that are crystal clear. To quote

If the goal is to improve education, then I propose a portfolio-assessment approach where students are allowed to gradually generate (over the course of the year) multiple writing samples in various genres (the kinds of things found in any real library or bookstore) and then submit them by some agreed-upon due date.

Critics of this approach will say that portfolios are unreliable and that there is no way to guarantee student authenticity. But we teachers know the truth. The College Board would much prefer that their test remain mostly multiple-choice, which is cost-effective to score. Portfolios would require the Board to hire thousands of English teachers each year to read and assess over a million pages of student writing, much of it demonstrating genuine literacy learning. Now that would be a revolution.

Right on the money, IMO.

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