Friday, May 06, 2005
SAT problems: The New York Times had an intriguing article on the new SAT essay test earlier this week. It turns out that an adding machine can grade the exams -- no brains needed.
In the next weeks, Dr. Perelman studied every graded sample SAT essay that the College Board made public. He looked at the 15 samples in the ScoreWrite book that the College Board distributed to high schools nationwide to prepare students for the new writing section. He reviewed the 23 graded essays on the College Board Web site meant as a guide for students and the 16 writing "anchor" samples the College Board used to train graders to properly mark essays.
He was stunned by how complete the correlation was between length and score. "I have never found a quantifiable predictor in 25 years of grading that was anywhere near as strong as this one," he said. "If you just graded them based on length without ever reading them, you'd be right over 90 percent of the time." The shortest essays, typically 100 words, got the lowest grade of one. The longest, about 400 words, got the top grade of six. In between, there was virtually a direct match between length and grade.
It gets worse, it turns out that badly mangling facts doesn't affect your grade one way or another.
He was also struck by all the factual errors in even the top essays. An essay on the Civil War, given a perfect six, describes the nation being changed forever by the "firing of two shots at Fort Sumter in late 1862." (Actually, it was in early 1861, and, according to "Battle Cry of Freedom" by James M. McPherson, it was "33 hours of bombardment by 4,000 shot and shells.")
Dr. Perelman contacted the College Board and was surprised to learn that on the new SAT essay, students are not penalized for incorrect facts. The official guide for scorers explains: "Writers may make errors in facts or information that do not affect the quality of their essays. For example, a writer may state 'The American Revolution began in 1842' or ' "Anna Karenina," a play by the French author Joseph Conrad, was a very upbeat literary work.' " (Actually, that's 1775; a novel by the Russian Leo Tolstoy; and poor Anna hurls herself under a train.) No matter. "You are scoring the writing, and not the correctness of facts."
Thinking cynically, I can understand why students aren't graded down for wrong "facts" -- the breadth of knowledge among the various essay-graders can vary significantly. To top it off, English teachers are usually hired for this sort of work -- would every teacher necessarily notice that students were one year off on the starting date of the Civil War? Yes, all teachers possessing a college degree should know the answer -- but can you punish some kids for knowing less than the graders?
I'm sympathetic to some of these students' plight -- mainly because while I was in high school I wasn't known for writing extremely long essays. I got to the point -- quickly. That's an important trait for journalists, but not for the English or social science majors who are considerably more verbose.
What it comes down to is that the essay portion of the exam is mainly useless. Maybe the College Board should go back to the old exams, because this is just a bad joke.