On Lying to Your Test Scorer

Earlier this fall I took part of a day to introduce students to the three essays that are usually components of the AP Language & Composition test most of them will take in May. These include the synthesis essay, a rhetorical analysis essay, and what I have long referred to as the argumentative/persuasive essay. On this third question, students are typically given a debate on which they are supposed to articulate a position, supporting that position with whatever appropriate evidence they can come up with. That evidence might be from what they’ve read, what they’ve seen on television, what they’ve learned in other classes. It can also come from their own personal experiences.

When I said that last bit to my class, one clever young man asked, “Can we make things up?” Someone always asks this. It’s often a clever young man. I responded, obnoxiously, with a paraphrased quote from Twain: that if you always tell the truth, you never have to remember what you said. (As an aside, I have no idea whether Twain actually said this, or if it’s just one of the many things misattributed to him.) In any case, the point is, the kid asked. I dodged. And I dodged for the same reason that he asked: it’s fairly obvious to everyone that the scorer won’t know whether the kid’s telling the truth or not, sitting in that room with a hundred other scorers and a million other essays. And yet it seems wrong to say to students, who are sitting before you, innocence glinting in their eyes, “B.S. away, my children. B.S. away.”

This issue came to the fore yesterday, at least if you read Matthew J.X. Malady’s article in Slate about the essay portion of the SAT. (Is that the author’s real name? I guess I’ll never know.) Posted under the horribly misleading title, “We Are Teaching High School Students to Write Terribly,” Malady details what he sees as the harmful, unintended consequences of standardized essay exams.

So, for instance, in relaying personal experiences, students who take time attempting to recall an appropriately relatable circumstance from their lives are at a disadvantage, he says. “The best advice is, don’t try to spend time remembering an event,” Perelman adds, “Just make one up. And I’ve heard about students making up all sorts of events, including deaths of parents who really didn’t die.”

This is apparently cause for alarm. But rather than making some sort of moral case against it, Malady wants to argue that it actually causes students to write more poorly in the future. He goes on to cite university professors such as Anne Ruggles Gere at the University of Michigan:

College professors, according to Gere, expect their students to be able to demonstrate evidence-based argument in their writing. This involves reading and synthesizing materials that offer multiple perspectives, and writing something that shows students are able to navigate through conflicting positions to come up with a nuanced argument. For those trained in the five-paragraph, non-fact-based writing style that is rewarded on the SAT, shifting gears can be extremely challenging.

I’m sorry, but were college students showing they were able to “navigate through conflicting positions to come up with a nuanced argument” before the SAT writing portion came along in 2005? If you were teaching at the college level before then, I bet you’d argue otherwise. Now, there’s no question that the SAT, and other writing tests that ask students to write for half an hour to a mysterious, impersonal audience they’ll never hear back from, encourages students to game the system. And indeed, I need no convincing that college freshmen think more about whether a personal story will satisfy their assignments than whether that story is meaningful or even factually true. But to blame that on the SAT is to imagine an educational system that teaches writing primarily with standardized essay tests in mind. Happily, I don’t think we have that system yet. I think we still teach students the value of using writing processes that include brainstorming, drafting, revising, and editing. (If you want to panic about why we teach the wrong things, there are certainly programs for sale that justify some level of concern.)

Meanwhile, let’s not assume that students–high school or college–are such dupes that they can’t tell the difference between a writing situation where they are actually trying to communicate with someone and one that doesn’t actually matter beyond a number. If the way you assess writing looks like a hoop, don’t complain when students try to jump through it.

As for my students, the best advice might be to return to the approach that I teach them about all writing: think about your audience, your purpose, and the occasion. Given those three factors on a standardized writing test, if you don’t feel gross making up a story, just make sure it’s a good one.

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