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Grading Standardized Test Essays

When the College Board announced nine years ago that it was requiring test-takers to write a 25-minute essay on the SAT, the decision was hailed by some and denounced by others. As part of its latest revision, the College Board will make the essay portion optional ("SAT's about-face on essay presents colleges with a tough question," Los Angeles Times, Mar. 13).

What I don't think most people understand completely is that standardized test essays are not scored by machines but by humans ("The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Test Scorer," Monthly Review, Dec. 2010). The problem is that those so tasked are temporary workers who are given brief training. They must have a bachelor's degree, but that is about all that is necessary to qualify.  

Each scorer is expected to read about 15 essays an hour.  As a result, the average time given to each paper is about four minutes ("Graders Learn Fine Points Of Scoring College-Exam Essays," The Wall Street Journal, Aug. 2, 2004).  If scorers are paid by piece-rate, it's quite natural for them to want to score as many papers as possible, reducing the time spent on each.  I fail to see how it's possible under those conditions to fairly evaluate what students have written.  Making the entire process even more indefensible is that scores are supposed to closely match those given in previous years.

Clearly, there's no place for creativity or original thought.  In fact, test-takers who try to demonstrate such qualities run the risk of receiving a low score.  Nevertheless, reformers persist in the fiction that the essay provides valuable information.  But is the ability to write anything substantial in 25 minutes realistic?  Professional journalists can crank out succinct and clear copy in short order, which is why journalism has been called literature in a hurry. However, we're talking about high school students.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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