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The Tally Ho

Friday, May 13, 2005

The death of prose

Let's get away from hypocritical politicians for a moment, shall we?

Another week, another round of misspelled and misspoken student questions. "How do you get privats parts cancer?" they ask. I generally don't mind their grammar, unless it's a particularly egregious mistake or a word that I've intentionally made them write down as a vocabulary term. After all, it's not my job to judge or grade them, thank heavens. I'm in a school right now where the teachers do well with that task, thank you. But I'm concerned that the students who are being taught to write precisely and concisely may actually be penalized for that talent, now that the SAT has got an essay component. The NYTimes wrote on May 4 that "SAT essay test rewards length and ignores errors of fact". Since it's already been archived, I will quote extensively:

"It appeared to me that regardless of what a student wrote, the longer the essay, the higher the score," Dr. Perelman [one of the directors of undergraduate writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology] said. A man on the panel from the College Board disagreed. "He told me I was jumping to conclusions," Dr. Perelman said. "Because M.I.T. is a place where everything is backed by data, I went to my hotel room, counted the words in those essays and put them in an Excel spreadsheet on my laptop."

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. An essay on the Civil War, given a perfect six, describes the nation being changed forever by the "firing of two shots at Fort Sumter in late 1862." (Actually, it was in early 1861, and, according to "Battle Cry of Freedom" by James M. McPherson, it was "33 hours of bombardment by 4,000 shot and shells.")

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."


I'm appalled for several reasons. First, because more and more writers are buying into the idea that length matters. Despite everything that news editors and business writers have been telling us for years, we think that if we write three pages on a topic, we will always convey more information than if we write one. Second, it's not just the SAT board that grades for length. As students in high school and college, we all learned how to beef up or slim down a paper with margin, font, and point changes. Third, and most crucially, our society seems to be losing its ability to think critically and question written facts, no matter what we believe about their source. (Anna Karenina? Upbeat?) Last year's report from the National Commission on Writing, a group of educators convened by the College Board, which creates the SAT, claims that "about a third of the companies reported that only one-third or fewer of their employees knew how to write clearly and concisely. The companies expressed a fair degree of dissatisfaction with the writing produced by recent college graduates - even though many were blue-chip companies that get the pick of the litter." (NYTimes editorial, May 15) Careful readers will notice that the College Board financed this study, and perhaps will even wonder why Staples' editorial doesn't mention the controversy over factual errors reported two weeks ago. Many colleges are still deciding whether and how to use the scores, and claiming that these scores would only be used in conjunction with other writing samples.
"The difficulty that universities find themselves in, if there's a whole raft of qualified applicants, is that you need some sorting mechanism," said Doug Hesse, a professor of English who directs the honors program at Illinois State University. "So, especially in a time of budget cuts at public universities, when you don't have much people power, a test score, even a flawed one, is hard to resist." (quote is from previous link)

Expect more and more students and workers to sign on to the idea that supersized essays are better, and that incorrect facts are better than no facts at all. Would you like fries with that?

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