Thursday, May 05, 2005

 

If you don't know the facts, shovel a LOT of BS!

In so many words: "In so many words
Samuel G. Freedman, New York Times
May 4, 2005 SAT0504
CAMBRIDGE, MASS. -- In March, Les Perelman attended a national college writing conference and sat in on a panel on the new SAT writing test. Perelman is one of the directors of undergraduate writing at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He did doctoral work on testing and develops writing assessments for entering MIT freshmen. He fears that the 25-minute SAT essay test that started in March -- and will be given for the second time on Saturday -- is teaching terrible writing habits.

"It appeared to me that regardless of what a student wrote, the longer the essay, the higher the score," Perelman said. A man on the panel from the College Board disagreed. "He told me I was jumping to conclusions," Perelman said. "Because MIT 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."

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 schools nationwide to prepare students for the essay. He reviewed the 23 graded essays on the College Board website 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. 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.")

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," Perelman said, "and include lots of facts, even if they're made up." This, of course, is not what he teaches his MIT students.

SAT graders are told to read an essay just once and spend two to three minutes per essay, and 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 guessed the correct grade by its bulk and shape. "That's a 4," he said. "It looks like a 4."

A report released this week by the National Council of Teachers of English mirrors Perelman's criticism. It said a single, 25-minute writing test ignores the most basic lesson of writing -- that good writing is rewriting. It warns that the SAT is pushing schools toward "formulaic" writing instruction

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