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Sep 24 / Jonathan

SAT Essay Test Rewards Length and Ignores Errors

A couple of years ago, the College Board added essay writing to the SAT college entrance exams.

…when the new SAT was announced two years ago. College Board officials described it as a tool that could transform American education, forcing schools to better teach writing. A “great social experiment,” Time magazine said.

Cynics say the new essay is window dressing added to placate California officials who in 2001 were calling the old SAT outmoded and were threatening to stop requiring it. In a recent paper, Edward White of the University of Arizona notes, “As long ago as 1999, in College Board Report No. 99-3, a research team pointed out that ‘writing assessments based on a single essay, even those read and scored twice, have extremely low reliability.’ ”

The situation sounds even worse than the cynics might have feared.

IN March, Les Perelman attended a national college writing conference and sat in on a panel on the new SAT writing test. Dr. 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 M.I.T. freshmen. He fears that the new 25-minute SAT essay test that started in March – and will be given for the second time on Saturday – is actually teaching high school students terrible writing habits.

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

In the next weeks, Dr. 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 high schools nationwide to prepare students for the new writing section. He reviewed the 23 graded essays on the College Board Web site 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. “If you just graded them based on length without ever reading them, you’d be right over 90 percent of the time.” 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.”)

Read the whole NY Times article.

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