Saturday, March 19, 2011

The College Board's Two-Pronged Attack on Excellence

Our old friend the SAT is back in the news again, with one of the prompts for an essay question worth 30% of the writing score on a recent exam coming under fire.

Here's the question:
Reality television programs, which feature real people engaged in real activities rather than professional actors performing scripted scenes, are increasingly popular. These shows depict ordinary people competing in everything from singing and dancing to losing weight, or just living their everyday lives. Most people believe that the reality these shows portray is authentic, but they are being misled. How authentic can these shows be when producers design challenges for the participants and then editors alter filmed scenes?

Do people benefit from forms of entertainment that show so-called reality, or are such forms of entertainment harmful?
The problem, say critics, is that the question pre-supposes knowledge of trash-TV (that’s my term, not theirs). According to a piece by Jacques Steinberg in the New York Times, one student posted this on the College Confidential website: “This is one of those moments when I wish I actually watched TV…. I ended up talking about Jacob Riis and how any form of media cannot capture reality objectively…. I kinda want to cry right now.”

OK, so any high school kid who can invoke the name of Jacob Riis is probably going to be all right, anyway, but what if his score on the writing section suffers even a few points? Students at this level may need higher scores even more than their less accomplished colleagues do: the difference between a 420 and a 440 isn’t likely to be a significant determinant at the University of Northern South Dakota at Hoople, but the difference between a 680 and a 700 might at an Ivy League school. (Having said this, I acknowledge also that over half of the four-year schools in the country ignore the writing section of the SAT altogether.)

Defenders of the question, like Laurence Bunin, senior vice president of College Connection and Success (how pompous and edu-speak is that job title?) at the College Board, which owns the SAT, argue that
Questions raised about a recent SAT essay prompt miss [a] basic point and confuse the literal topic with the task of writing the essay. If presented with a topic about balancing the risk of climbing a mountain with the reward of reaching the summit, for example, a good writer could compose a strong essay without ever having reached the summit of Mount Everest. Using a popular culture reference is not only appropriate, but potentially even more engaging for students.
In that case, why not a choice of topics? But that would be an intelligent solution, and this is the SAT, after all.

Another College Board minion, Peter Kauffmann, the VP of Communications, asserts in that Times article that “everything you need to write the essay is in the essay prompt.” These are the people in charge of a primary determinant of whether students are admitted into colleges and universities? Really?

OK, let’s start with Mr. Bunin. I would point out that the people taking the test are a). high school kids, and b). under a lot of stress because they understand the consequences of doing well… or poorly. So how about we not get all smug about whether under those conditions a 17-year-old can get past the initial horror of reading a high-stakes “literal topic” to which s/he has no way of knowing how to respond. As Jack Marshall wrote over on Ethics Alarms, “Why did they panic? Because they had no idea what the question referred to… and that should be a good thing.”

More to the point, good writing is a function of weighing possible arguments, elaborating ideas, and providing examples. Bunin presents a false analogy (he’d lose points if I were grading his essay). A consideration of risks and rewards in mountain-climbing can be interpreted either literally or figuratively. The overwhelming majority of high school students aren’t mountain climbers, but they have basic knowledge of the kinds of risks that might become relevant: faulty equipment, exposure to the elements, avalanches, etc. Significantly, students will understand that they are not required to know a crampon from an ice axe to be able to answer the question.

Conversely, a significant percentage of students taking the SAT actually know who (or what) a Snooki is, even if they couldn’t pick the current Secretary of State out of a multiple-choice line-up. I, on the other hand, while I could construct hypothetical scenaria of what might happen on some reality TV series, don’t know, don’t care, and, most importantly, would be no less fit for university admission because of my ignorance. Some kid whose idea of intellectual stimulation is contemplating (shallowly) whom should be voted off the island, however, is likely to have at hand a litany of specific examples of when s/he was aware (or unaware) of the manipulation noted in the prompt. In other words, Mr. Kauffmann's claim that the question is self-contained is utter nonsense. Stated otherwise, while I would hope that my vocabulary, grammar, and reasoning might be superior to that hypothetical student’s, that doesn’t mean my essay would be better.

Or, rather, it wouldn’t be better by any real standard. By the standards of the SAT, however, who knows? The College Board’s apologists, whether company employees, alleged journalists like Lylah A. Alphonse, or high school kids commenting on an on-line article, all seem to be claiming the same thing: that a pro forma, unimaginatively constructed, essay without specific examples is just fine; don’t worry about it.


Mediocre writing is mediocre writing. If “Brittany,” commenting on Alphonse’s piece, is correct (and I fear she is), a student’s score is determined more by “play[ing] by the rules” than by merit. Here’s the first sentence of her commentary: “It's true, as long as you do the intro, three paragraph body, and conclusion, and try not to make spelling or grammar mistakes, you're set.” This is pretty standard adolescent thinking and pretty standard adolescent writing: nothing egregiously wrong, but it’s lazy, syntactically suspect, and, shall we say, dubiously punctuated. The real problem here is not that Brittany isn’t a better writer than she is (although that may point to larger issues), but that she got “an awesome score” simply by writing, competently but unspectacularly, to a formula. (Consummation devoutly to be wished: her idea of “awesome” is my idea of “not screaming into the night awful.”)

The College Board, in other words, has launched a two-pronged attack on excellence: they de facto encourage students to watch garbage on TV instead of reading a book (or watching PBS or a good movie, or going to play rehearsal, or...), and they structurally advocate an assembly-line approach to writing which, more likely than not, will find the hackneyed and prosaic superior to the inspired and unconventional.

I understand that bad questions sometimes find their way onto exams; I’ve written some of them. But, if I might use a Watergate analogy, there’s a sense here that the cover-up is worse than the crime. In defending a bad question, in other words, the College Board has made it clear that they aren’t really in the business of testing writing skills at all. To the extent that anyone places any faith at all in their enterprise, that is a far more serious circumstance than a single poorly-conceived essay prompt.

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