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MIT Professor Finds Fault with SAT Essay


This weekend, hundreds of thousands of high-school students across the nation, and perhaps in other parts of the world, will sharpen their number-two pencils and sit down to take the SAT. The exam used to be half verbal, half math. Most people who've taken it remember their score longer than they remember their high-school fight song, but now the SAT is a bit more verbal with what is shaping up to be a controversial essay portion. The National Council of Teachers has concluded that the essay portion of the test is not useful in judging how students will perform in college. Dr. Les Perelman agrees. He directs the writing program at MIT in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and evaluates incoming freshmen on their writing. The board explained to him and other teachers of writing how the new essay portion would be scored, which raised lots of red flags for him. Les Perelman joins us from member station WBUR in Boston.


Dr. LES PERELMAN (MIT): Hi, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: First of all, what is wrong with how The College Board has approached this essay and how they grade the writing?

Dr. PERELMAN: Well, the first thing that's wrong with it is the kind of essay that they're asking students to do. Although college students will, of course, be writing exams where they have to write on demand in short amounts of time, that's on material that they've thought about, that they've studied. The only time in a person's life when they have to write quickly on demand on something they've never thought about is when they take one of these kinds of tests.

WERTHEIMER: Now I read in The New York Times that you found upon looking at the essays that were offered as samples that you could look at an essay across a crowded room, guess at the grade and be right.

Dr. PERELMAN: Yes, what happened was after I was given the samples at this conference, I went back to my hotel room and started going through it, and when I got to the ungraded samples, I realized I could score it before I read it because just a certain length was always a certain score. So being from MIT, where numbers are very important, I counted the words, put the number of words and the scores into an Excel spreadsheet and discovered that the correlation was the highest I've ever seen in test data.

WERTHEIMER: So you really don't have to read them, you could just weigh them and that would be enough.

Dr. PERELMAN: Right. Or just look--you know, basically see how long they are.

WERTHEIMER: Could you just give us some examples of how the SAT encourages students to write which you think are counterproductive for their careers in college, things that they're encouraged to do which, in fact, won't work?

Dr. PERELMAN: Well, one of the things on the instructions for readers was that they said, you know, `Don't worry about facts.' You know, a student is encouraged to put in a date even if they don't know the date. They're encouraged to put in lots of details even if the details don't really fit the argument. One of the things this emphasizes is what's called the five-paragraph essay, you know, and that one of the things at most colleges happens is that we spend the first year deprogramming them from the five-paragraph essay.

WERTHEIMER: If I appoint you king of the United States and you get to say how this ought to be done, what would you think would be a better way to test writing skills?

Dr. PERELMAN: What probably needs to happen--and this is what happens in a lot of European countries--is the exam would be much longer, that maybe there would be a whole day devoted to writing. And, in fact, Paul Dietrich, the person who really founded writing assessment for the Educational Testing Service, said exactly that, that to really assess writing, you need to have students write two lengthy pieces of writing, that they have to be separated in time by at least one in the morning and one in the afternoon. It allots the students time to think about the question and especially revise the question. One of the things we know is that the main factor that differentiates good writers from bad writers is the ability to go back and revise. I would also give students ahead of time readings that would give them data so that we'd equip them with information that they could actually use in writing the essay.

WERTHEIMER: Dr. Les Perelman of MIT University, Cambridge, Massachusetts, thank you very much.

Dr. PERELMAN: Thank you, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: Two college officials and an educator debate the SAT essay in our Web site feature Taking Issue at npr.org.

You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Wertheimer
As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.