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Surviving the Essay

March 14, 2005

Not such a big deal, after all.

That was the consensus of students leaving Woodrow Wilson Senior High School, in Washington, on Saturday after they were part of the first group to take the revised SAT, with its much-hyped essay question.

High schools, testing companies and parents have been talking for months about how the new format might confuse and scare students. But those leaving this testing center were nonchalant.

Scott Squires, a Wilson student, said he didn't think the essay would cause problems for students because it was "pretty easy to think of examples." The question was abut whether majority rule is always right, and Squires said that he cited the Nazi period in Germany, and the U.S. government today, as examples of the popular will being wrong.

Like many of the students leaving the high school, Squires had taken an SAT preparation course, but many said that they would have done so even with the old format.

With tens of thousands of students taking the SAT, those leaving any one testing center would not make a scientific sample. But newspaper reports Sunday from reporters who waited to greet those leaving the test all over the country suggest that the SAT was administered smoothly and that few students were surprised by the new format.

At Wilson High, a public school in Washington's Northwest quadrant, the students taking the test were a mix of those from public high schools in the city and its suburbs, and from some exclusive private high schools.

While the broad nature of the essay question pleased Squires, it frustrated some other students. Christine Buras, a student at the National Cathedral School, said, "it was so unspecific, you could have written five volumes." Buras was chatting with friends after the test, and they were all concerned about how an essay could be graded, in a standardized way, for students from all over the country.

One student -- among the many who said that they cited President Bush's win in November as evidence that the majority is not always right -- said she worried that a conservative grader would give her a low score for her views. Another, who said that she thinks of herself as a good writer, worried that she would be hurt because she's not a speedy writer -- and students had only 25 minutes for the essay.

The College Board, in a list of questions and answers about the new test, says that the essays will be graded not on the view expressed but on such qualities as "complexity of thought, substantiality of development, and facility with language." Each essay will be graded on a six-point scale by two readers, and a senior reader will review the scores any time that they differ by more than a point. The essay will count for only one-third of the new writing test, with the remainder coming from multiple choice questions about errors and ways to improve sentences and paragraphs.

The College Board also released examples of sample questions and answers on the essay portion of the test, with explanations of why different essays would have received different scores. Many critics of the College Board portray the changes as cosmetic, noting that the College Board acted only after the University of California threatened to stop using the SAT. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing issued its own fact sheet on the revised test, and characterized the changes as "painting lipstick on a pig."

Supporters of the SAT have said that they hope that the changes -- and especially the elimination of the notorious analogy questions -- would make the test less coachable. But there was no evidence of that Saturday. Most students interviewed said that they had worked with test-prep companies, tutors or programs at their schools. One student who didn't take a course on the SAT said that his friends who did passed along the materials they received.

Many students said that they were unsure how much their families had paid for test prep, but parents interviewed said that they had spent between $1,000 and $1,500.

However, students who took test prep courses had reasons other than the essay to get help. Michael McGregor, a student at St. Alban's School, said, "I'm a pretty good writer," but he worried about some of the math questions.

Only one student -- who asked that he not be identified -- admitted to having had difficulty with the essay question. He is a student at a public high school in a low-income area of Washington, and said that he hadn't taken a test-prep course. He said he had spent half of the time allotted for the essay just thinking about it, so he didn't spend enough time writing.

The majority of those interviewed at this test site said they had opposed the idea that majority rule is always right. Among other examples cited by several students: scientists whose views were opposed by popular religious groups in various periods, slavery when it was backed by popular (white) opinion in the South, and the Vietnam War before opposition to it grew.

One student did endorse the proposition of majority rule.

Ezra Cohn, a junior at Walt Whitman High School, a top public high school in Washington's Maryland suburbs, said he wasn't worried about the essay because he is taking Advanced Placement English and does plenty of writing already.

He defended majority rule by focusing on Aristotle's views of democracy and by contrasting the relative success of the democratic United States with the collapse of the non-democratic Soviet Union.

While Cohn felt confident of his performance, like many students, he didn't particularly enjoy the experience. "I'm not a fan of the new SAT," he said. "It overemphasizes verbal skills."

 

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