SAT Challenge: They Sound Like... Bloggers

Visit the Official Blogger SAT Challenge site.

After the grading was finished, a few of our volunteer graders made general comments about the essays they read. One thing that really jumped out at me about this was the way that the problems they described sounded like exactly the sort of thing you would expect from a bunch of bloggers:

(Continued after the cut.)

I'll leave the names off, to be polite, so here's Grader One:

I was struck by the number of people who wrote essays without apparently thinking the directions applied to them. They made assumptions about the assignment, or decided that they were better judges of what the assignment should be, and then wrote what they wanted to write rather than produced what they were asked to write.

I smiled, but I wondered why do they think a scorer (and after all, pleasing the scorer is what matters much more than self-respect when taking a test) cares about their opinions?

Grader Two:

I was struck by the number of writers who felt that musing about some aspect of the question, or one of the words in it, or one of the stories it reminded them of, was a reasonable way to respond to the directions. Another
thing that really jumped out at me was the word drift in the essays. I was amazed at how quickly the words
in the prompt-"overcoming obstacles" and "struggle"-became "working hard", "trying", "staying
up late to study" or "having a good character", and the lines of logic followed suit. Sometimes (more
often than I would have thought), the drift continued across paragraphs.

This ties in with the all-too-frequent poor organization of so many of the essays. I realize this was very much a "first draft" sort of exercise, but I expected more of adults. Right now I work on writing mostly with 8th and 9th
graders, and to be perfectly honest, the organizational skills on display in these essays was very reminiscent of that level of work. Ideas were denser, sentence structure, vocabulary,etc. better, but organization was tepid, people seemed reluctant to flat-out state their position, and meaning was often implied rather than explicitly stated.

Grader Three:

Overall the quality of the essays was not far above that of high school students writing their first practice essays. The biggest differences I noticed were in grammar and diction: most of the entrants wrote in complete, generally grammatical sentences, and there were fewer awkward turns of phrase and poorly-chosen "vocab words" than I see in student writing.

The organization and logical flow of the essays, on the other hand, was on the whole surprisingly sloppy. Many people seemed not to understand that the assignment was to write a persuasive essay *with a clear point of view*. Often writers tried to be clever with roundabout ways of coming at the question, but it only made my job as a grader more difficult, and grumpy graders don't give fives and sixes.

If anything, the bloggers were *worse* than high school students in getting to the point and staying on topic. They also tended to equivocate more, to argue the merits of both sides, which, though it might mark you as a reasonable person in normal discussion (in real or online life), actually hurts your SAT score.

As I said, they sound like... bloggers. Given the people in our sample, I would've been surprised if they hadn't opted to argue with the premise of the question, and go off on weird tangents...

Anyway, thanks again to our graders. This was a lot of fun to do. It's not remotely scientific, and it's not like we've discovered anything revolutionary, but it's been really interesting to see what people did with the Challenge.

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"They also tended to equivocate more, to argue the merits of both sides, which, though it might mark you as a reasonable person in normal discussion (in real or online life), actually hurts your SAT score."

This is exactly why I dislike the SAT and similar tests such as the writing component of the Virginia SOLs. The instructors get into the habit of teaching to the test so that their students will be awarded those 5s and 6s, which means that students are encouraged to simplify complex issues in order to be prepared to pour their 'thinking' into the mandated format. Then, when they are asked to do more sophisticated thinking and writing in college, they are at a loss. Truly persuasive writing acknowledges the existence of complexity and multiple viewpoints and addresses those realities.

I agree wholeheartedly with Elf Eye. This is probably my biggest beef with the SAT essay, that it rewards essays that pretend the issue is clear-cut (and penalizes those that don't).

I prefer the new ACT essay, which actually requires students (those who want to score highly, anyway) to recognize the complexity of the issue and address at least one possible counterargument to their position.

I am not at all surprised that the high school students outperformed the bloggers. A big part of what makes a "good" piece of writing is knowing the target audience. "Good" for a paper in a peer-reviewed research journal is not "good" for a newspaper article is not "good" for blog post. There are some elements that are common to all good writing, but the graders' comments you quote indicate that those are not all that is being tested, here. What is also being tested is the ability to write to a certain specification, and the high schoolers are presumably more familiar with what is desired in an SAT essay than a bunch of bloggers, many of whom probably last took an SAT before there even was a writing requirement!

I do wonder if, when high school students are taught to write these things, are they being told, "This is how to write," or "This is how to write an SAT essay." (Probably depends on the quality of the high school.) I remember when I was in high school, we were taught a lot of techniques for speedily constructing a written argument or analysis for a timed writing test, but that sort of formulaic writing was discouraged in take-home assigned essays and papers.

The question was somewhat ridiculous in a way- for some it is much harder to write what you don't actually think is the case. There were idiotic questions like that in freshman classes in college the point was to pick one side support it, provide some distaff evidence for the other side but conclude that one was more supported. Yet, when writing the essay, one knew that picking either side could get one the same grade, thus there essentially were not enough facts presented in class to truly discern an answer.

Your second sentence begins: "Oe thing that..."
Yes, grammar is a problem with bloggers.

Your second sentence begins: "Oe thing that..."
Yes, grammar is a problem with bloggers.

More like typing is a problem for me, especially late at night after a basketball game (that was written at around 10:30 Sunday, and scheduled for this morning...). It's fixed, now.

You just got linked on slashdot, which is how I found this blog. I like what you've got to say, but watch out, I feel like there may be a large number of trolls headed your way.

By Jeff Shrensel (not verified) on 02 Oct 2006 #permalink

Jeff Shrensel: You just got linked on slashdot, which is how I found this blog. I like what you've got to say, but watch out, I feel like there may be a large number of trolls headed your way.

Followed shortly by:
Ralph Wiggum: "Me flunk English? That's unpossible!"

Whatever makes you think that?

It's going to be interesting to see how the servers hold up...

It's shameful that "a clear point of view" is treated as a sin in itself by writers. An essay with a clear point of view is more interesting, more challenging, and more stimulating than a defensive and fully hedged "analysis." Writers who are too wary of criticism cannot think originally. They only dare take a stand under the shield of irony, where one may not assume that they mean what they say. This is a shame. Cowardly writing makes worthless reading.

By David Huebel (not verified) on 02 Oct 2006 #permalink

"...students are encouraged to simplify complex issues..."

If the teachers are any good they will encourage the students to find the underlying causes, which yes, may be viewed as simplifying a complex issue, but at the same time it can just as easily be viewed as discussing the parts of the matter which are most important. An essay doesn't always need to examine every possible angle on an issue, to write in such a fashion would be to waste both the writer's and the reader's time. Complex issues are often given whole other dimensions that aren't really needed and bog down the core issues which actually sparked the debate.

"...recognize the complexity of the issue and address at least one possible counterargument to their position."

That may be the case but one of the most effective ways to persuade someone is to acknowledge their arugment, or in the case of the SAT or some equivalent medium, acknowledge a supposed argument, and then to respond accordingly. Just because no one's there to discuss it with at the time doesn't mean you can attack mindlessly and not block any arguments. Of course, parrying without seeing the blow in this case can just upset the reviewer.

By Jeff Marbacher (not verified) on 02 Oct 2006 #permalink

The test measures the ability to follow instructions more than it measures writing skill, creativity, intelligence, agrumentation, or individuality, even with holistic grading. You only need a bare mininum of the first and the third to get a perfect score.

I agrued with the question in mine, which is apparently the quickest road to a 2. :) The test specfically asked for my opinion, and my opinion was the question was loaded.

I'm a bit appalled, really, at the graders' comments above, after looking over the essays myself. Their summative statements are rather smug. Implied rather than explicit structure is bad? Not for skilled readers it's not - implications allow the reader to draw inferences instead of being forced from signpost to signpost. Explicit structure is ok, but it's not the end-all of writing. The scorers care not about the opinions of the testees? Funny thing - the test asks for an opinion. The grading job was too difficult? Then don't grade, if you're not qualified. In summation, jeez.

The SAT measures your ability to write grammatically correct sentences and express yourself in a meaningful way, which are the only things that can be taught in school. It doesn't matter what your opinion actually is. What matters is that you can express an opinion, and do so following the conventional rules of english writing. All you have to do is take a stance within the prompt, and use evidence to support that stance.

I've written essays in english classes where halfway through the essay I realised that I didn't agree with my point of view. However, I was 15 minutes away from the deadline, so I continued to the finish because I'm not being graded on how closely the opinion expressed jives with what I really believe. I'm being graded on how well I can express a relevant opinion.

To a large extent, I agree with Chobi (comment #14)

But was the grading done SAT-style?

The people who graded the posts were given a quick brief about the primary aspects to be considered.

It is like that we have forgotten this: As habitual readers of the Blogosphere, our blogging and blog-reading instincts take over. Thus, in the end, the grading is usually grading of a blog-post, rather than grading of a SAT-style essay.

I could not read all of the entries; in fact, I read only a handful of them. But the common element in each of the entries was the basic analysis of the topic. The resultant opinions were framed around the analysis.

In the case of the SAT essays, the analysis itself seemed a little lopsided. Hence, the essays seemed, how do I put this, inadequate?

Again, there's this psychological block among most of us when it comes to giving a perfect score. All through our careers, it has been imbibed upon us that perfection is hard to achieve. When it come to scoring tests, not all of us are willing to rate an essay as perfect, that easily

Could that be the reason why so few essays got a perfect 6?

As a foreigner, I was shocked at the selfcenterness of the reviewers. Two choice quotes

(and after all, pleasing the scorer is what matters much more than self-respect when taking a test)

and grumpy graders don't give fives and sixes.

Also, I was dismayed at the poor language the graders displayed. Especially, number 2, from whom I quote:

musing about some aspect of the question, or one of the words in it, or one of the stories it reminded them of, was a reasonable way to respond to the directions.

The above sentence has an abysmal structure that almost completely mangles a rather simple point.
After reading these except from the reviewers, I am not sure I would dare read the actual essays :)

By Esben Mose Hansen (not verified) on 02 Oct 2006 #permalink

I find this evidence towards a theory that has been bouncing around in my head for quite some time. The Internet, and it's finest of representatives, bloggers, are promoting a much extended adolescence.

The average fifteen-year old is full of opinions, self-righteous political attachments, adherences to strict rules in fashion and music, and all sorts of immature behaviors characteristic of someone who is very afraid to let go of their childhood.

The Internet and the culture that it promotes, through blogs and through social networking services, make it very easy to strictly define yourself. Most people list their favorite authors and songwriters on their sites like they are sewing a patch on to their book-bag. This sort of behavior seeps out in to the non-digital landscape as well. I am not surprised these days to be out at a bar talking to someone in their mid-thirties and have them look at me like I'm a moron and say, "You seriously like that band?"

So naturally, the young, the hip, and the restlessly wired seem to be stuck in some kind of never-ending high-school fantasy world, where they can not bring themselves to step away from their childhood narcissism for even 25 minutes to write a short essay about how a local city council should handle the pros and cons for establishing a noise ordinance for a neighborhood. One of the goals of education is to ready a young populace for eventually being in the position to make decisions that benefit our society.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for the post-modern writing approach. It's good to realize that every issue is multifaceted. The big danger comes when you find yourself in a position of responsibility and you need to make a clear decision. In many cases, inaction of any sort is going to cause more trouble than not. Wisdom becomes the key to handling the paradoxes of these situations. Wisdom is what separates adults from children.

Opinionated behavior is to be expected from teenagers. The scary part is when you find that most of the thirty-somethings you know are sharing more than an acceptable amount of similarities with these pink-haired youngsters.

By William Cotton (not verified) on 03 Oct 2006 #permalink

I find high school writing to be far inferior to that of today's most popular bloggers. Heck, I think they (bloggers) out-perform a significant amount of "credible" journalists these days.

When instructed to write an SAT essay, one should not be surprised at being graded down if one writes something else. At architect asked to build an office building would win scant praise if he built a bridge instead, regardless of how marvelous a bridge it might be. A football player asked to throw a forward pass would be graded down if he kicked a field goal. An diver asked to execute a simple reverse somersault would not score well for even a perfect forward two and a half somersault two twist.

The exercise at hand is to see if the writer can use whatever skills he has to produce the piece of writing being asked for. Prose that does not take a position and support it is no more appropriate a submission than a sonnet.

Mike(13) and Esben(17):

Okay, so I was being a bit facetious when I said that subtle, nuanced writing makes graders grumpy, but my underlying point was (as several others have noted) that the SAT is not a test of how well you write per se; it's a test of whether you can get the graders to give you sixes.

SAT essay graders read hundreds of these at a time and only spend two minutes with each essay. As lousy and cynical as it sounds, they don't want to have to think about your essay or take the time to read into it a meaning you've cleverly implied through subtle humor. They want you to state your position clearly in plain English.