You could hear the sound growing last week when the announcement hit the news: the SATs are being revamped. It started as a gasp of pleased surprise, grew into a confused cacophony of approval, and finally swelled to the full-throated cheers of a delighted mob. The very letters S.A.T. cause beads of sweat to break out on the foreheads of the vast majority of Americans. This high-stakes test has long been associated with one of the cornerstones of the American Dream: a college degree. Those who do not “test well,” or who were recovering from the flu on test day, or who had bad teachers 12 years running have envisioned the letters on a door slamming shut in their faces.
This overhaul of the dreaded exam, many hope, is a key step toward getting rid of it altogether. Many colleges and universities have already diminished the importance of the SAT for admissions, or allowed prospective students the option of withholding their scores.
Feel the breeze generated by the collective sigh of relief. The essay portion of the test, added in 2005, will now be optional. The other major change is that students will no longer suffer an extra penalty for answering incorrectly. (One might say “guessing incorrectly,” but I don’t have a dog in that fight).
As a professor of college writing, I’d like to speak to the first change: the essay becoming optional. My guess is that the vast majority of test-takers will opt out. For many, it would be akin to a dentist telling a patient that brushing and flossing are now optional. No, more like a dentist announcing that fillings and root canals are now something you don’t necessarily need. I love to write, but I’m well aware that not everyone does.
A recent article in The New York Times Magazine cites MIT professor Les Perelman’s criticism of the essay portion of the test. He discovered that accuracy doesn’t necessarily matter to the graders of the essay, that longer essays tend to receive higher scores no matter the quality of their content, and that the prompts for the essays create an artificial writing situation that may not reflect the talents of the student writers. Everyone seems to agree: the SAT essay section is a flawed instrument. I would not advocate preserving a flawed instrument, and I’m not a huge fan of standardized tests as a measure of intelligence, aptitude or potential for continued academic success. I am, however, a touch bothered by this development.
What bothers me is that essay writing seems so easily expendable. It’s the first sandbag to go. But don’t we agree that it’s vital? Employers of all stripes cite it as one of the most important skills applicants can have. I can tell you from the perspective of someone with over two decades of experience that teaching writing is hard work. There’s no magic formula for doing it well. It’s more labor intensive than many other academic teaching assignments that can be graded by machine. Individual writers develop bad habits that are impossible to break without hypnotherapy. Sometimes we writing instructors feel like Sisyphus, our rock a red pen or grading rubric.
And yet, we try to succeed at this Sisyphean task, and we encourage students to do the same. It’s nearly a cliché in our field that “essay” derives from the French verb “essayer,” meaning “to try.” Essays are attempts at understanding. I’ve encountered quite a few students who have told me they’re just not good writers. I tell them that they have to shake that damaging label if they are to move. The only way is to keep writing. To keep trying.
What I’m saying, I’ll admit, might seem to have little to do with changes to the big, bad SAT. But it does have something to do with these changes, if only symbolically. In our Twitter-plagued world, where text messages have reduced communication to its ugly fetal state, our culture has signaled its willingness to give up on essay writing, or least on writing pieces that cannot be contained in 140 characters. We have surrendered to autocorrect, sometimes with cringe-inducing results. Restoring the essay portion of the SAT would not change anything in terms of this cultural shift, and I’m not advocating for its restoration. But if this change signals a more general admission that the ability to produce good, sustained writing is no longer something we value in everyone seeking higher education, I’m hesitant to join the cheering crowd.