educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

The hero who helped rid us of the SAT essay

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Students out there, if you are slogging away in preparation for yet another standardized test, yet another battle against the machines of education, hoping some caped crusader would fight for you, would champion your cause, you need look no further than former MIT writing professor Les Perelman.

As a Boston Globe columnist wrote last year, Les is “The man who killed the SAT essay.” His efforts saved thousands of students the frustration of engaging in a mechanized, decontextualized, speed-writing exercise to show their “writing ability.” (His efforts may have done more than just allay frustration: As this recent article discussed, there’s some thinking that all this testing students are subjected to may even be bad for their health.)

He intellectually smashed through some of the imposing grey walls of acceptance that have been built around testing.

Indeed, testing is so transparent, so common, that most students just passively withstand the indignities of it. In my first-year writing class a few weeks ago, my students and I were talking about standardized writing tests. Despite their collective frustration and hopelessness about testing, they pointed out that millions of students do what they themselves had just done: Travel through the college application process. There must be a way to efficiently sort all of those students, some said. Even the hard-core test haters in the room agreed.

I thought about this worthy insight — these students are smart! — for a moment, and I asked: “How many of you include a spouse or significant other as a key component of your big-picture life plan?” All 18 raised their hands.

Then I said, “So, that will be a major component of your life, that relationship. For how many of you does the process of making the choice of partner feature the concept of efficiency?”

No hands went up. And why would they? Choice of significant other is incredibly important in the human experience. They’re not going to reduce it to efficiency.

Yet, another key part of human experience, education, routinely includes efficiency. We have been lulled into believing efficiency is necessary in evaluating schools and the talents and potential of the people who attend them.

Les saw through that. He conducted a campaign to help raise awareness about the problems of standardized writing, especially how those writing “samples” are evaluated.

Looking for a brainy hero? The campaign itself was a good model of intellectual activism. Les drew on his disciplinary foundations in writing studies in creating his arguments. He employed evidence. He was patient. He was even funny, developing a writing generator that could easily fool the mechanized graders used for such tests; his generator used big words and sheer length to fool these robograders with nonsense essays. (I provided a sample essay — it’s worth reading again — in this space a few years ago.) His message moved beyond the walls of academia to the public realm (even internationally, as you can see from this brief clip).

So, good students, as you wearily prepare to take yet another of the estimated 100+ standardized tests that are part of your school life, take some solace that mandatory SAT writing is no more.

And if you look skyward for the hero who freed you from this, Les Perelman is your man.

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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One Response to “The hero who helped rid us of the SAT essay”

  1. Scott, I was vaguely aware of the SAT essay part of the exam, but as it has been decades since I took an SAT, GRE or anything like that–it’s been since before the turn of the century for me–I had no direct experience of it. However, from everything you say, it appears that this is one more example of the dehumanization of the educational process that we have been undergoing, as much as I try to “humanize” my classes myself (largely through my ineptitude and lack of precise rubrics!).
    I cite Neil Postman in saying that any new technology has its winners and losers, but you don’t know who will be either one until much much later. My students wonder why, as a Science Fiction reader and teacher, I avoid modern technological innovations like cell phones, tumblr, pinterest, etc., but as a science fiction reader I could have almost predicted the kinds of gibberish composition that you cite as examples of prose that could pass the exam…but means nothing.
    Of course, who was it who said that Life was a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury…signifying nothing? (Does that have anything to do with Signifying Monkey?)

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