educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

The new SAT: No more mandatory writing

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Part 8 (of 874) in an occasional series about how standardized tests are destroying education.

The redesigned SAT, debuting in 2015, will feature new approaches to language skills, and the writing test will be optional. We’ll return to the old 1600-point scale that we all knew so well. With the College Board admitting/recognizing that the writing test, which was introduced in 2005, is flawed, some are wondering if this presents an opportunity to reassess all mechanized writing tests, to now see them all for the education-draining entities that they are.

A recent New York Times Magazine piece about the “SAT Overhaul” opened with a description of a meeting between College Board president David Coleman and Les Perelman, a writing researcher who has been one of the writing test’s “harshest and most relentless critics.” (I wrote last year about how Perelman has revealed absurdities in the tests, and I included a sample, inane essay he concocted that received a high score. His essay is worth checking out.)

While the article demonstrates how Coleman laudably wants the new writing exam to be driven by evidence-based writing, certainly a valuable skill, and it depicts Coleman as someone who wants education to be better, Perelman poses this tough-to-rectify question: “When is there a situation in either college or life when you’re asked to write on demand about something you’ve never once thought about? I’ve never gotten an email from a boss saying: ‘Is failure necessary for success? Get back to me in 25 minutes?’ But that’s what the SAT does.”

Kent Williamson, executive director of the National Council of Teachers of English, in a U.S. News & World Report article about the upcoming changes, also said it is difficult for colleges to accurately determine a student’s writing abilities from one timed writing test, and that while the new analytical rather than open-ended essay can measure an important skill, one sample is too restrictive. “If that becomes your only vehicle for measuring writing competence, it’s a pretty narrow slice,” Williamson said. “When you think about the range of writing students will be doing in college, it’s one important piece, but it’s just one piece.” In our digital era, he asks, why not collect several samples and create a portfolio? (The NCTE has a position statement on these writing tests.)

Other language components of the test will also change, especially the cryptic vocabulary sections. Williamson did express hope about the new test’s language components, saying the SAT’s long use of “arcane vocabulary” seemed to be a “bit of artificiality that was maybe put in place to segregate people with certain knowledge from others.”

These changes, especially eliminating the mandatory writing test, seem good. Will this create an opportunity to open up a broader conversation, maybe empowering teachers and parents to more effectively resist these tests? As Paul L. Thomas says in his Alt.Net piece, “Now That the SAT’s Writing Section is Gone, It’s Time to Rethink How We Teach Composition”: “[…] considering the importance of writing in human agency and education, any effort to standardize the assessment of writing or to use writing assessments as gatekeepers for any child’s access to further education are essentially corrupt and corrupting.”

Keith Rhodes, a Michigan writing professor, emphasized well the toll on education. He wrote in a March listserv message on the NCTE Spokespersons’ Network that research has shown that “writing was decreasing in volume and complexity as students moved from middle school toward the end of high school. As test prep takes over, writing diminishes. It takes an unusually brave secondary teacher just to teach writing better and figure students would then do better on the tests.” He too reinforced that standardized writing like the SAT and ACT continue to be poor predictors of “how well our students would do at college writing.”

Rhodes says that these high-stakes writing tests have “had a strong gravitational pull moving teachers away from using practices they know are better toward reductive preparation for these dead-end timed writings.” He shares the optimism of some others that “ that getting rid of the SAT timed writing will help secondary teachers use more of what they know to be better approaches to writing. We can only hope that other guilty parties will follow SAT’s lead.”

The millions of school hours spent preparing kids for these writing tests is a colossal failure of human imagination. There is a bill, bipartisan at that and supported by the NEA, hoping to reduce the number of standardized tests that can be imposed on schools. Here’s hoping other guilty parties will indeed follow.

You could jump in here if you like:

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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7 Responses to “The new SAT: No more mandatory writing”

  1. Happiness- forget all the higher learning BS, all you really want is your kid to be happy. If they dig ditches, invents switches, smells farts or runs the country it doesn’t matter unless their happy. Happiness is getting paid way too much money for watching kids play kick ball, GYM Teacher!!!!!!!!! WTF don’t over think it. As I previously related, if they are the square peg in the round hole type become a gym teacher. A friend of mine is a gym teacher at one of those Indian schools just east of 73. 39 years old been there 15 years got one of those BS online masters degrees making over 100K being a fucking gym teacher and in the summer life guard down the shore. Do you know life guards have a pension system yes sir and it’s sooo funded bc everyone pays into it but only the guards who become teachers ever get to collect. OK so any more life, career advice hollar. KISS keep it simple s

  2. What an interesting study in contrasts.

  3. I am preparing a letter to our school district this week so my child will “opt out” of the NJASK. Our school district spends most of the year preparing for this ridiculous waste of time and money. Hopefully by the time she has to take the SAT or ACT it will be transformed into a real gauge of knowledge.
    The College Board has become a money making street walker (you know the real word I would use). It takes an hour to fill out the online form, most of it so they can siphon money from unsuspecting kids and parents. I’m sure all standardized testing is or will be following down the same street.
    As Andy wrote above “all you really want is for your kid to be happy”, but I add to that; you also want them to be successful in whatever they choose, whether it be digging ditches or rocket science.

  4. I blame Obamacare.

  5. There are no happy ditch diggers.

  6. Very articulate Rebublicans are posting, I see.

  7. Scott,

    Great survey of the coverage of the changes to the SAT…thank you. I’d read the NYT Mag piece…and was impressed and hopeful…but hadn’t read much else.

    And, btw, you know you’re arriving as a blogger when you get some crazy/weird posts from people. Right after I finish this comment I’m going to look into MEd. degrees in kickball…and start swim lessons.

    This moment is a compelling bookend…when we were really getting underway with Waypoint ( the changes to the SAT promised an increasing focus on writing instruction.

    That didn’t happen, at least as far as I could see…Maybe more test prep / tutoring sorts of writing instruction. But writing embedded in the curriculum, authentic writing assignments, continue to depend on the kindness of dedicated teachers. That is, the people who value writing are committed to it, whether Comp instructor, English teacher, or Physics prof.

    In the same 10 year period, writing in the workplace has become, arguably, exponentially more important than it was in the 90s and before.

    Those who can write, rise in the information economy. I am constantly impressed by the skills of the clever people around me…marketeers, programmers, lawyers, product managers, college grads, high school grads, PhDs.

    Where did these skills come from? The bulk of the first-year students I taught at Drexel were no where near as advanced or capable. But maybe the top 25% of them continued to learn (through reading & writing, not so much direct instruction) and by the time they graduated were 5x better (2x ?) than what I saw in their first year…And those who plateaued? Maybe they’re “stuck” in lower-level positions…or find a rewarding home outside of the highly verbal/literate world of information work. I certainly see a fair number of these plateaued writers in the application letters for open jobs – many are embarassing and route the candidate into the trash can. That’s an authentic assessment, but there’s no feedback to the author.

    The importance of these writing capabilities are largely lost on companies. There is lots of “leadership training” in the corporate world. But moving/motivating people through the written word isn’t typically an important piece of that training. Writing skills are the part of the “Competency Iceberg” you can’t see…

    The natural filtering process, though, is very visible. Those who can’t write stand out very clearly, and you don’t need an automated AI exam scoring machine to tell you this.

    Perhaps this is why graduate degres – in any subject – are important. Graduate school, in almost any discipline, is reading and writing intensive. The combination of time (learning through osmosis) and intense scholarship help hone and finish competent writers.

    So the need for writing assessment is crucial, but it isn’t happening in formal education.

    But it does happen. Portfolios? Most of us have one. It’s called LinkedIn. And you can tell an awful lot about a person from seeing how they present themselves (or don’t), including whether the graduate degree they have is a complete joke.

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