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How to Score High on the SAT Essay

Although the new SAT makes the essay optional, almost two-thirds of test takers in the spring went for it ("How a teacher bombed the SATs," The Boston Globe, Jul. 14).  The essays were rated by two scorers on the basis of reading, writing, and analysis.  The scores were added up for a final total. In the latest version, test takers were asked to analyze an op-ed decrying the use of air conditioning.  They were instructed not to agree or disagree but instead to explain how the writer built his argument to persuade.

So far, so good.  But James Murphy, who holds a Ph.D in English from the University of California at Berkeley, has written more than two dozen pieces for prestigious national publications, and has been published in six peer-reviewed academic journals, received a lackluster score.  He didn't actually "bomb" the essay portion as he claimed, but on the analysis part, which measures an "understanding of how [an] author builds an argument," he got a low score. 

Clearly, Murphy was penalized for deviating from the rigid template taught at most test prep companies, including the Princeton Review.  I cannot conceive of any other reason.  What's so troubling is that the SAT once again makes no allowance for creativity and style.  I realize that it attempts to set a floor for test takers, but what about a ceiling?  Shouldn't scorers be permitted to use that as a factor? 

The truth is that companies hire a temporary workforce willing to follow ever-changing guidelines set by the testing companies ("The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Test Scorer," Monthly Review, Dec. 2010). Each scorer reads hundreds of essays.  They are not permitted to exercise individual judgment.  That's ironic because we talk so often about the importance of preparing students for college or career.  In both, individual judgment is precisely what determines evaluation.  I've been published countless times in newspapers and magazines around the globe.  Yet I've also received countless rejections.  No reason is given, leading me to believe that editors use their own judgment in deciding which submissions to publish.

If the SAT expects to retain any credibility, it needs to either entirely eliminate the essay portion or hire well-paid professional scorers who are allowed to use their own judgment.  What exists now is a travesty.

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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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