Why the new SAT is a reminder to improve the teaching of writing
The SAT, the test that many schools require to check for college readiness, has recently gone through a makeover. Perhaps the most significant change is to the writing portion of the SAT, which presents students with new and more complex reading and and writing challenges.
College Board, the nonprofit that administers the test, had earlier announced that the essay in the writing section would be optional. However, many schools in the U.S. require their students to take the writing exam.
Connecticut, New Hampshire and Michigan are examples of such states, where the SAT, including its writing exam, is required, not optional. What’s more, scores from these tests are critical beyond their acceptance and placement in some colleges.
The SAT serves as the measure of the educational progress for all students in each state that adopts the SAT for that purpose. In such cases, the SAT is more than a bridge between high school and college. SAT has become a “high-stakes” K-12 assessment. In fact, the stakes couldn’t be higher.
But are schools preparing students adequately to take the new SAT?
I have been working for a number of years with K-12 writing teachers in Michigan on designing more effective approaches to learning in writing as part of my research. I believe the new writing test is complex and requires skills that U.S. schools are not teaching students.
The new SAT
First, let’s take a look at what’s different about the new writing assessment.
In a break from most standardized writing assessments, the new essay task is not designed to elicit students’ subjective opinions. Rather, its aim is to assess whether students are able to comprehend an appropriately challenging source text and craft an effective written analysis of that text.
For years, the formula for success on high-stakes writing assessments has been to craft a five-paragraph structure: thesis paragraph, three supporting paragraphs and a concluding paragraph. Within that structure, students are more or less free to say anything, and the more creative and engaging that “anything” is, the better.
Les Perelman, the former director of MIT’s Writing Across the Curriculum program, who helped create MIT’s writing placement test, summed it up, when he said:
It doesn’t matter if [what you write] is true or not…In fact, trying to be true will hold you back.
As Perelman noted, “in relaying personal experiences, students who took time attempting to recall an appropriately relatable circumstance from their lives were at a disadvantage.”
The revised SAT, therefore, is a major shift from “subjective opinion” to an analysis based on a real-world nonfiction persuasive passage.
The table below provides a quick overview of what the revised SAT asks of students. The five paragraph structure is still there, but the intellectual work required of students is vastly different.
Students read a nonfiction argument that may be in the form of speeches, opinion editorials or articles that tend not to have simple for or against arguments but convey more nuanced views. Students are expected to marshal evidence about how the author builds a persuasive argument.
What makes the test challenging?
The first significant challenge is that the new prompt asks students to read rhetorically. Rhetorical reading is a form of analysis that is different from more literary forms of analysis that are likely taught in schools.
For example, the new SAT prompt asks students to notice how an author achieves a purpose, shapes a text for an audience and organizes information to achieve a goal. Students need to be able to analyze an argument pulled from topics across the disciplines.
For students to be able to do this, teachers need to help students become better rhetorical readers and better writers. This new way of reading and teaching reading must be layered into already overloaded existing curricula.
The second significant challenge, of course, is the writing itself.
In the past, success on “high-stakes” writing tests like the SAT could be achieved by following a highly structured formula.
That will no longer work. Instead, students will be asked to make arguments based on their own analytical reasoning. They will be required to marshal real evidence – not made-up events – drawn from the passage to be analyzed.
And students will be required to do this quickly, within a time frame in which they will already be engaged in more complex reading practices.
Writing instruction in schools
The reading and writing required by the new SAT will be new for students and many teachers. Rhetorical reading requires “reading like a writer” and answering questions such as “Why did the author do it this way?” Students will then have to write up that analysis in a way that makes evidence-based arguments.
Any examination of English Language Arts curriculum in U.S. middle and high schools will reveal a nearly complete focus on literary forms and genres with relatively little writing. The basic values and focus that give us our “English” curriculum date back to a 19th-century shift from classical modes of education toward the study of literary texts. It was a shift from Latin and Greek models of discourse, and, most importantly, instruction in speaking and writing, to a shift to literature in English and a focus on reading and analysis.
The curriculum that resulted from these broad changes over time is “English,” and direct instruction in writing has never recovered. The National Commission on Writing for America’s Families, Schools, and Colleges, a project to help improve the teaching of writing, argues that writing is the “neglected R” in education. That same report notes that little time is spent on writing instruction – at best less than three hours a week. In a recent survey, 82 percent of teens report that their typical school writing assignment is a paragraph to one page in length.
[T]he actual writing that goes on in typical classrooms across the United States remains dominated by tasks in which the teacher does all the composing, and students are left only to fill in missing information, whether copying directly from a teacher’s presentation, completing worksheets and chapter summaries, replicating highly formulaic essay structures keyed to high-stakes tests, or writing to “show they know” the particular information the teacher is seeking.
Let’s not teach to the test
I work with teachers and schools quite anxious about how to respond.
Anxious parents – mostly parents of students who struggle with language or have learning disabilities – have asked me questions about the revised SAT.
Teacher preparation programs have historically provided little to no preparation in teaching writing to new teachers, though this is slowly changing. Surely, good teachers and attentive schools will develop well-designed approaches to the new SAT. But I believe responding to the exam is the wrong approach and misses the point.
What is required is a comprehensive change in how we value writing and writing instruction. If that were to happen, then more complex writing exams would be taken in stride because our approaches to learning in writing would exceed the demands of any high-stakes test.