A plethora of myriad writing

To demonstrate that the essay component of the SAT encourages bad writing, an MIT professor coached a student in how to get a good score for a nonsense essay.

In the 1930’s, American businesses were locked in a fierce economic competition with Russian merchants for fear that their communist philosophies would dominate American markets. As a result, American competition drove the country into an economic depression and the only way to pull them out of it was through civil cooperation. American president Franklin Delenor Roosevelt advocated for civil unity despite the communist threat of success by quoting “the only thing we need to fear is itself,” which desdained competition as an alternative to cooperation for success. In the end, the American economy pulled out of the depression and succeeded communism.

Inside Higher Education has a link to the whole essay on the virtues of cooperation. The essay received a 5 out of 6, a grade reserved for an essay that shows “reasonably consistent mastery” that “effectively develops a point of view” and “demonstrates strong critical thinking, generally using appropriate examples.”

Les Perelman, director of MIT’s Writing Across the Curriculum program, coached a student to write an essay that cited historical facts regardless of accuracy, used examples and quotes regardless of whether they made sense and included words such as “plethora” and “myriad” which scorers are said to favor.

At the Conference on College Composition and Communication in New York City, Perelman argued that the SAT’s attempt to evalute writing is hurting students, who may spend months practicing for the SAT’s writing component.

The essay is harming students, Perelman said, because it rewards formulaic writing that views the world as black and white, isn’t based on any facts, and values a few fancy vocabulary words over sincerity.

Good writing should make sense.

Via This Week in Education.

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Comments

  1. This is really not as bad as it sounds. This is a writing test, not a history or economic test. The judgment should be on the writing, not on the soundness of the idea in the essay. Ideologues often have views of history or economics that are far more absurd than this.

  2. wayne martin says:

    > The essay is harming students, Perelman said, because it rewards
    > formulaic writing that views the world as black and white, isn’t
    > based on any facts, and values a few fancy vocabulary words
    > over sincerity.

    This short article, based on Perelman’s complaints, doesn’t prove that the SAT Writing test is actually harming students. Since this is a relatively new test, it would seem that all US high schools would have had to modify their programs from “good” writing styles to “bad” styles in order to gain higher tests on the SATs. Doesn’t sound all that likely.

    > He also said that while most college instructors work
    > to “deprogram” students from the infamous
    > “five paragraph essay” they learned in high school,
    > the SAT test reinforces that approach.

    OK .. this sounds valid. How, is it true? Any college English teachers want to comment?

    Keep in mind that the SAT is just reflecting the model already in place. So, it would seem that Perelman’s gripe is with the teaching of writing in the US education system, more than the SAT.

    > Perelman and
    > others noted that the problem isn’t limited to the time
    > students spend actually taking the SAT, but that many
    > students devote months or years of study with coaching
    > services to learning how to write the way the
    > College Board wants

    The article says that this writing test is new. How many years could students have spent preparing for this test (outside the track of their own English classes?

    > and with students fearful that
    > a poor score will hurt their chances
    > of college admission,
    > they focus on that kind of writing.

    There have been many complaints about a lack of synchronization between college and high school Sounds like this is one of those areas that needs a lot of work.

    I wonder what Perelman would have said if the writing sample had received only one point because of historic inaccuracies?

  3. BadaBing says:

    I’ve got mixed feelings on this one. What passes for scholarly writing these days is so dense and obfuscatory (Is that a word?) it is almost impenetrable. Post-modernist “scholars,” such as UCLA’s Peter McLaren, a prolific author of pure nonsense, have put out some of the most unreadable stuff I’ve ever encountered, and students exposed to this kind of verbal morass think it is brilliant because they can’t really understand it. Scholarly writing is not tantamount to clear writing in today’s university. In many cases, it doesn’t even have to make sense. I’d say the writer in question has himself a career in academia, provided said student is not white, heterosexual or male.

    On another note, you could program a computer to write essays that would score fives and sixes on the SAT. Sure, the essays might be nothing more than fiddle-faddle, but the usage, diction and syntax are what get you the high SAT scores. But isn’t good writing about coming up with a decent thesis and supporting it with cogent examples? It should be, but for the SAT apparently not.

  4. I read the whole essay. Good writing should be a pleasure to read. I don’t think it’s suppose to evoke pain. And it should make sense.

    Some of the high school kids I’ve encountered try to write to impress, thinking that confusing the reader is actually a sign of good writing.

  5. bd wrote:

    —–This is really not as bad as it sounds. This is a writing test, not a history or economic test. The judgment should be on the writing, not on the soundness of the idea in the essay.

    That might justify the citing of “historical facts regardless of accuracy” but not the use of “examples and quotes regardless of whether they made sense.”

    Making sense is a requirement of good writing.

    No, sorry College Board, you got punked on this one….

    Lyndap, you are so right. I have the same trouble with some of my students — they have to be reminded continually that clarity is supreme, that the language ought to be just sophisticated enough to convey the ideas, no more.

    In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote:

    “It [the English language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.”

  6. GradSchoolMom says:

    I find this essay epitomizes today’s academic situation. The writing has no life because our children are not taught to think for themselves. They get the highest grades by imitating and repeating back the formulas that they have been taught. I think the Rubric was one of the worst additions to the educational system. I am disgusted with the attitude of formulating exactly what must be done to get the A that I’m seeing even in Grad school. There are always many more questions about the Rubric than there are about the subject being discussed. How many pages must the paper be? How many references must we use? Is that single or double spaced? None of my classmates want to learn anything, just obtain a degree. These classmates are all teachers who are earning A’s and learning nothing – like the writer of the SAT essay.

  7. wahoofive says:

    During the SAT exam the students have no access to reference works, and don’t know ahead of time what the topic of the essay will be, so it seems silly to penalize them for making up facts or quotations (although if the quotations don’t support their thesis that should obviously count against them). This may or may not be reflective of how writing works in the real world, but it’s realistic with regard to scoring this particular test.