The test prep business is booming, thanks to college admissions hysteria and the revised SAT, which is longer and now includes an essay. In a Princeton Review class, students are urged to use larger handwriting and think of illustrative examples ahead of time.
(Tutor Paul Ternes) cites a student in a previous class who boasted about being able to answer any question thrown at her with examples from “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.”
. . . Natasha Coleman, a Montgomery Blair High School student eyeing a place at Harvard, said the class has reduced the stress she associated with the test. She said she is not sure about the Huckleberry Finn theory of answering essay questions but has nevertheless managed to boil down her responses to just two strikingly different case studies: World War II and “The Great Gatsby.” “Those two examples should cover everything,” she said.
College Board officials say test prep doesn’t help much, though students improve if they take practice tests.
A 1999 study commissioned by the College Board showed an average 20-point improvement in math scores (out of 800 points) that could be attributed to coaching and an eight-point improvement in verbal scores. By contrast, a 2001 study commissioned by the Princeton Review showed a 136-point jump in the combined verbal and math scores among its students.
The new SAT was supposed to be less coachable, lessening the advantage of affluent students who can afford a test-prep class.
In the New York Times, journalist-teacher Curtis Sittenfeld defends the essay.
Critics claim that the SAT essay section will invite a hasty, generic effort: the standard five-paragraph model containing an introduction, three paragraphs with one example each and a conclusion. Even worse, they argue, schools will now devote class time specifically to preparing students for this essay.
But what’s so wrong with the five-paragraph essay? I learned from my own teachers that the success or failure of any piece of writing hinges above all on its structure – on what information the writer presents or withholds, and when. If students can master the five-paragraph essay’s rigid format, surely they can write just about anything else; and if they understand the rules, then they can break them.
As for the notion that such training stifles creativity, I’ve read enough writing by both high school students and graduates to know that stifling creativity might not be such a bad thing. Ultimately, learning to express yourself clearly will take you much further than learning to express yourself “poetically.” Poetry may be in the eye of the beholder, but clarity is less subjective. That’s why I don’t share the fear that grading the SAT essay (scored on a six-point scale) will be particularly complicated.