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Why the New SAT Essay Is Bad News

Apr 27, 2016 by

Cherie Zaslawsky – As a tutor/educator/ with a Master’s degree from Stanford who taught the “old” SAT essay to students for many years, and who has just finished teaching an online class in the “new” SAT essay—the one aligned to the Common Core–I can now say a few words about what the College Board hath wrought.

For the “new” SAT essay assignment, students have to do what is essentially a rhetorical analysis of a given text. They are not permitted to express an opinion about the text—only to analyze how the author constructs his argument and what techniques or devices he uses to persuade his audience. Many students simply fill their vacuous essays with the impressive sounding Aristotelian rhetorical terms ethos, logos and pathos, looking for places to insert them—rather like pinning the tail on the donkey, and about just as productive.

In deference to the worried students who’ll be taking the new SAT which debuted last month (March 2016), College Board put two sample articles on its website for students to use as practice for the exam. These passages are phenomenally boring. That is, perhaps they wouldn’t be so bad if one simply read them quickly and that was it. But neither merits any kind of close reading. One, by Paul Bogard, is about preserving darkness at night–a kind of urban environmentalism, if you will, about how we should turn off our lights at night and stop “wasting energy.” The other is by poet Dana Gioia, and is about the decline in literacy and in the love of reading. Now I’m passionate about that subject too, but this Gioia article is pedestrian, mostly quoting studies and giving numbers and statistics. OK, that has its place. But to force students to spend 50 minutes reading this sort of “informational” text, and then doing a “rhetorical analysis” on it would be ludicrous if it weren’t so tragic. It is generally an exercise in futility.

I’ve never read so many boring, pointless, meaningless essays in my life than when I gave those two articles to my students to “analyze.” Each essay was virtually indistinguishable from every other, except by virtue of the difference in the frequency and type of grammatical and usage errors. They all tended to “map” the text and put it into their own wordier sentences, after quoting the same most obviously quotable bits. Absolutely stultifying! And College Board itself, which published a number of sample student responses to these “informational texts” on its website, couldn’t even find a single essay on the Gioia article worthy of its highest score of 12! The new SAT essay, by the way, is in marked contrast to the “old” SAT essay assignment, which was as challenging and stimulating as the “new” essay is deadening. In truth, even the best of College Board’s sample student essays are nothing more than boring drivel, though some are decidedly better written drivel than others.

Interestingly, however, when I gave my students texts of my own choosing: Roosevelt’s The Man in the Arena, JFK’s Inaugural Address, Martin Luther King’s I Have a Dream speech–their essays were much more readable and interesting.

Now here’s the really heartbreaking part: When I asked the students, who had just done the Gioia article, followed by King’s speech, which essay they preferred writing, they all said the one on the Gioia prompt! When I asked why, they said, “It was easier.” I was struck dumb.

But I haven’t given up. In fact, I gave them an “extra no credit” assignment of analyzing a Dana Gioia poem which I’d selected. Two of the four students did that assignment and those were wonderful essays! And all the students wrote better essays on King’s speech than on Gioia’s prosaic article. Of course! King’s speech gave them real substance to work with, ensconced in elegant prose filled with quotations and echoes from the Bible and the Declaration of Independence. Yet, initially, the students would rather read cut-and-dried simplistic informational texts that are “easy” to “analyze”. Well, not for long–not my students! In class we proceeded to discuss King’s and Kennedy’s speeches, including the underlying concepts of liberty and justice, the beauty and majesty of the prose, and the presence of Biblical references, until they could appreciate the banquet set before them by these and other great leaders who’ve authored such texts. But in teaching this way, I’m swimming upstream against Common Core and the Common Core aligned SAT, not with the powerful downstream current that aims to sweep our students to the lowest common denominator.

The tragedy is they’re being taught not to think, not to seek inspiration and beauty and meaning in literature, and not to aspire to creating something of meaning and value in their own writing. They’re being herded in the direction of utter conformity–no opinions, just say the same things as everyone else. So much for ethos, logos and pathos. Aristotle must be turning in his grave.

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