SAT Writing

by F.

The New York Times has a piece on the new, all-singing, all-dancing SAT writing test:

Most of the writing test — and three-quarters of the writing score — consists of multiple-choice questions on grammar and usage. But most of the anxiety among high school students centers on the 25-minute essay, graded on a scale of one to six by at least two readers, who spend about three minutes on each essay. Their two scores are added. And, the College Board said, the reason so few students won top marks on the writing section is that so few — less than one percent — got sixes from both readers, for that perfect 12.

The article has some sample essays which are worth reading.

Sure, you can laugh at these essays from SAT students, and point to certain sentences as “awkward”—perhaps the most useless feedback any student has even gotten on a piece of writing. But I think these are actually pretty good, given that they are written in 20 minutes under pressure.

And they focus on the right things, it seems to me: form, not content—transitions, topic sentences, connectors, and so on. And while that’s not sufficient for literary writing, it is necessary for clear, logical writing, which is what most people need to do. Add a dash of style later and you’re good to go.

(By the way, there are only two books anyone needs to write well: this one and this one. The first is more important: it’s about the logic of presenting information via text and will appeal to quantitative types. The second is about your attitude toward your reader. It’s a little bloated but its heart is in the right place.)

There was a story floating around a while back about how machines were grading these SAT essays. From the Times story, it sounds like humans are grading them, but it wouldn’t suprise me if they went to machine grading. An algorithm could pick out the logic of the essay. After all,

a US news service has found a way to replace human beings in the newsroom and is instead using computers to write some of its stories. Thomson Financial, the business information group, has been using computers to generate some stories since March and is so pleased with the results that it plans to expand the practice. The computers work so fast that an earnings story can be released within 0.3 seconds of the company making results public.

You can read more about that at the FT. This suggests that writers’ output is on the way to becoming a commodity—not very surprising, really. It may take a few years, but given the formulaic structure of most writing (news stories, etc.), it’s only a matter of time. Of course, I can’t say exactly when….

More reactions to the SAT writing section here and here.