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The Education Beat

Testing: The new version of a college entrance exam gauges students' writing ability - or does it?

February 08, 2004|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

WOULD Shakespeare get a good grade on the new SAT writing test? How about Ted Kaczynski, the Unabomber?

If we're to believe a trio of officials of the Princeton Review test coaching service, Kaczynski's political screed would score higher than seminal works of Shakespeare, Hemingway and Gertrude Stein in the new college entrance test, which the sponsoring College Board will roll out next year.

In an article in the March issue of The Atlantic, the Princeton Review folks apply SAT scoring criteria to passages from the four authors. Shakespeare's "All the world's a stage" soliloquy gets a grade of 2 on a scale of 1 to 6. "It is riddled with errors in syntax," says the mythical grader, "incomplete sentences being the most noticeable problem." With that score, Shakespeare would have trouble getting into Bard College.

By contrast, "Mr. Kaczynski's essay is well developed, displays an impressive vocabulary and makes good use of supporting examples." It gets a 6.

Behind such satire is serious criticism of the way we grade writing in state testing programs and on the SAT and other national tests. It's said to be formulaic, to value multisyllabic words over simple ones, and to dismiss a writer's style and flair. "Because it's form over substance, it's very coachable," says Erik Olson, Princeton Review's director of publications and one of the Atlantic article authors. "If the prompt asks for an essay about world peace, you can get a good grade if you write about your pet goldfish, so long as you make it long enough and include words and phrases the readers are trained to look for in the two or three minutes they have, like `for example.'"

Not surprisingly, the College Board vehemently begs to differ. "We take writing seriously," says Chiara Coletti, the organization's vice president of communications and public affairs. "That we're doing so should be celebrated, not satirized, especially by three men who are making millions of dollars by charging exorbitant test preparation fees to some of the most privileged kids in America."

Whoever is right, the charge that the testing of writing in American schools puts form over substance is a serious one. Marylanders have been hearing it for more than three decades. First there were the functional writing tests. Then the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program came along in the '90s, and now it's given way to two statewide programs, the Maryland School Assessment and the High School Assessment.

Anyone who visited a third-, fifth- or eighth-grade Maryland public school classroom in the MSPAP era could see examples of teachers "teaching to" the writing tests. Children were taught how to begin and end a persuasive essay and what words to use in building an argument. The last paragraph was to begin with "In conclusion ... "

So far as I know, all writing tests, including the SAT, are scored more or less in the same way. Two readers, usually moonlighting or retired teachers, look at each essay. They're trained to grade "holistically," taking into account how arguments are organized, ideas developed, sentences structured. Bad spelling and grammar are penalized only if they impede the expression of ideas, a fact that drives conservatives crazy. (The mechanics of writing are usually tested in the multiple-choice format.)

If the two scorers differ by two or more points, a third person is called in, and the three confer until a verdict is reached. It's a mini-version of jury deliberation. Coletti says agreement within two points occurs in the vast majority of cases.

"The SAT is designed to identify good expository writing, not to identify new Hemingways," says Coletti. But she adds that "unless you can do strong, coherent expository writing, you're never going to be a Faulkner."

Gary Heath, who runs Maryland's testing programs, insists that satirical and humorous writing, even stream-of-consciousness, can get good scores. He says the state is developing "anchor papers" to show students and teachers what good writing looks like in all modes.

I ran the Atlantic story by Harry J. Cook, chairman of the English department at Eastern Technical High School in Baltimore County, and Gail Lynn Goldberg, a Baltimore-based authority on student writing.

With the demise of MSPAP in 2002, says Cook, there's "tremendous pressure on ninth-grade teachers." Although students need to write short answers to many tests in the Maryland School Assessment and High School Assessment, the ninth-grade HSA is now the only pure test of writing in the Maryland assessment programs.

That bothers Goldberg, who despairs that "writing isn't what it used to be across the board. We're letting it slip away, and if it isn't measured, it ceases to be taught."

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