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The SAT and Its Discontents

What could we gain by abandoning the test's timed essay? Better writers. "Although most people's goal is to be happy at all...



What could we gain by abandoning the test's timed essay? Better writers.


"Although most people's goal is to be happy at all times, being constantly satisfied and untroubled can actually prevent people from changing for the better. After all, why go to the trouble of changing if one is content with the ways things are? On the other hand, discontent often motivates people to make necessary changes. What revolution was not caused by widespread discontent? Who among us has not vowed to make a change because we are unhappy with some aspect of our lives?

Now, plan and write an essay in which you develop your point of view on this issue. Support your position with reasoning and examples taken from your readings, studies, experience, or observations. Please write legibly. You have exactly twenty-five minutes.

Is discontent often the first step to action?"

The above writing assignment came from the College Board's ScoreWrite: A Guide for Preparing for the New SAT Essay. For the past four years, college aspirants have been required to write an impromptu, timed essay as part of the SAT. The College Board claims the essay will provide colleges with a reliable indicator of student success and signal to high schools that they need to put increased emphasis on writing instruction.

All this new essay requirement accomplishes is more iterations of that already ubiquitous academic exercise, the five-paragraph essay: an introduction that concludes with a thesis statement, followed by three body paragraphs with supporting examples and a conclusion. Asking students to answer "Is discontent often the first step to action?" on a high-stakes test takes time away from other more active, engaged learning, and leaves incoming college students even less prepared for college-level writing.

What college writing experts know is that to improve writing, students need time to plan, reflect, and revise, something timed essays don't allow. Further, students must feel connected to the topics they write about; writing for the sole purpose of demonstrating competency rarely produces strong prose.

Learning to write is not like learning to ride a bike. As contexts and audiences change, writers must learn new knowledge, new rhetorical strategies, and new structures. That's why high schools can never do what colleges yearn for them to do. They can only teach high school students to write for high school, because that's the community in which the writing occurs. Only colleges can teach undergraduates how to master our codes or academic discourses. High school and college writing differ, as does business writing from journalism, and technical prose from creative writing.

Originally administered in 1926, the SAT began as a noble experiment to create a Jeffersonian natural aristocracy, an intellectual elite drawn from the best and brightest, regardless of race or class background, through neutral testing. But it never realized that perhaps unattainable goal. Numerous studies have proven that the test is biased against minorities and low-income students. According to FairTest: The National Center for Fair and Open Testing, the average verbal score for African Americans in 2004 was 430; for whites, it was 528. Those whose families earned between $20,000 and $30,000 per year averaged 459; those whose families earned above $100,000 averaged 553.

All Americans should have the chance to be admitted into college. However, high-stakes standardized testing such as the SAT will not help achieve this goal. Just as high schools will never prepare students well enough for colleges, these tests will never measure student ability regardless of educational experience or family background.

If we really want to prepare students for civil society, we should give them the tools they need to think and learn and offer them meaningful, honest contexts for writing. One idealistic Jeffersonian ideal is still alive, if limping, in our country today: universal access to publicly funded K-12 education. What might we accomplish-what gains in knowledge and learning might ensue-if the energy, money, and talents used to create, modify, administer, prepare for, complete, defend, and critique the SAT and its revamping were instead directed toward improving the educational quality of our public schools? What, for instance, if we found a way to offer all students a chance to write, and write more often, on matters of importance for real audiences, and what if we provided them with teachers who had the time and training to offer them humane, individualized feedback?

Time that could be spent wrestling with big ideas and playing with language is now spent preparing all-purpose, highbrow examples and fancy vocabulary words for the SAT essay. Let's hope the millions who will take the test this year will find a way to "express their discontent through action." Maybe they'll discuss their unhappiness with the SAT, and suggest reforms.

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