Sept. 6 (Bloomberg) — Everyone with high-school age kids talks about the SAT, the test required for entry to many U.S. colleges.
Some mourn the departure of the analogies, an event that puts kids good at pure logic at a disadvantage. But no topic generates more stress than the mandatory 25-minute essay.
Parents are desperate to convey to their children knowledge of history, rhetoric and grammar — in short, whatever of their own past can help their offspring.
The parents needn't bother. In the world of the SAT essay, there is no past, even when the essay topic itself is learning from the past.
I know this because recently I decided to look into the background of the test and the questions themselves. All parents nowadays are aware that history has been out of fashion in recent times. That is why so many people's transcripts feature course names like "global studies."
Still, I was surprised at the extent of the anti-history bias. The College Board administers the SAT, which older readers used to know as the Scholastic Aptitude Test. The board doesn't seem to mind when the facts are wrong on an essay — fact-testing happens elsewhere, in the SAT subject tests. Testers suggest that kids look no further than themselves for material: "There's nothing wrong with 'I,"' read guidance notes.
Then there is the essay question itself, first introduced in tests last school year. The College Board helpfully provides a sample subject, sample essays, and the marks that those essays received on its Web site.
Into the Past
Pupils were asked to comment on the following statement: "Many persons believe that to move up the ladder of success and achievement, they must forget the past, repress it, relinquish it. But others have just the opposite view."
Reading this, I felt some hope. The quote was adapted from author Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who wrote an insightful book about loss and ambition called "I've Known Rivers." Her statement is an update of an old rule that plenty of baby boomers have chewed their own sleeves over: George Santayana's line that "those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
But my investigation went downhill from there. Even discounting for political correctness, I failed to guess what would please the graders.
The first essay I opened clearly had problems: the author spelled opinion "oppion." But the student's response had an appealing moral clarity: "memories should not rule the present," the student wrote, arguing that history didn't provide rules but merely guidelines. It read like a Sunday sermon. I graded the essay low-to-middling. The official graders flunked it with a "1."
Another author used a dangling modifier to expand on Lawrence-Lightfoot's cliche: "when climbing the 'ladder of success,' each step gets you closer to the top." The essay didn't compensate with any storyline to speak of, historical or otherwise. Yet Mr. or Miss Dangler earned a middling-high mark, a "4." The same mark went to a student who used the essay page to drop a hint: resolve had helped his brother get into "the prestegious college of the University of Notre Dame." Yes, he spelled it with an "e."
But most distressing was an essay awarded the top grade, a "6." The student wrote about trying out for a part in the Tennessee Williams play, "Cat on a Hot Tin Roof," not a bad topic. She dropped a couple of SAT vocabulary words — "tortuous" and "debacle." And she noted that she had practiced hard for the part: "For two hours I studied Elizabeth Taylor's mannerisms, attitude, and diction, hoping I could mimic her performance." In the film version, Taylor gives new meaning to that historical undergarment, the slip. So the author had my interest here.
'Becoming,' Not Acting
Then she came to her point: she hadn't won the role, and hadn't deserved it. The right way to act, her message was, was never to emulate — or to learn a craft, it seems. She had only been rewarded with another part when she had learned that theater was about "becoming my own character." The slap to the past was as loud as anything in "Cat."
It is not clear that all the graders share the test authors' biases. And, to be fair, some essays with history themes scored well.
A bigger question is whether the SAT essay's "historylessness" matters.
In Concord, Massachusetts, a former history teacher named William Fitzhugh runs a journal, the Concord Review, which offers prizes for original history work by high-school students.
Fitzhugh sent me some of his students' essays, including an 8,000-word investigation into the habits, actions and motives of kamikaze pilots; and a 13,100-word piece on Writs of Assistance in the American colonial period. Fitzhugh also created the National Writing Board, a small not-for-profit organization that helps colleges see what pupils can accomplish.
Big changes in testing won't come fast enough for today's teenagers. Some students will indeed fail to gain entry to some colleges because of the accursed essay, even though they deserved to. No one will ever admit that to them. Among them will be disadvantaged kids who failed to receive the sort of coaching enjoyed by the middle class. Too bad they will learn so soon what Lawrence-Lightfoot meant when she wrote of "loss."
(Amity Shlaes is a Bloomberg News columnist. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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