Tuesday, January 18, 2005

Essay-T

From the WaPo:

With just two months to go before the much-heralded new SAT is given, a team of English professors and psychometricians is poring over sample essays to determine what kind of writing should be rewarded and what penalized.
Okay, how about writing that doesn’t just pull stuff out of its "hey-hey kids" should get a good grade? Like, what in the world is a psychometrician? That just screams pretentious post-modern junk science. With a neo-Marxist, deconstructionist slant, of course.

Much of the scoring proceeds swiftly. Many of the essays, written by students in 25 minutes as part of a trial run for the real test, fall into obvious categories: excellent, dreadful or -- most common of all -- mediocre. But there is some writing that defies easy pigeonholing -- such as the first-person story from a star high school actress.
“And then I thought to myself, “but vomiting is just like reverse eating, so what’s the big deal?” Three boxes of ho-ho’s and a pony keg of Yoohoo later, I stared at myself in the mirror. I was fat. Not Renee Zellwiger as Bridget Jones fat, but, like, people watching at Wal-Mart fat. And that's what freedom means to me.”

Scores for the essay are all over the map -- from 4 for competent to 6 for outstanding. To illustrate her theme, the drama student provides only one example -- her own acting experiences -- rather than the traditional three. She makes some grammatical errors but has an engaging voice and an argument that is sustained from beginning to end. After a lengthy discussion, the panel reaches agreement.
“She’s probably still hot even though she's packin' a few extra,” a reviewer said as everyone nodded, “I’d rate her a six.”

[…]

Critics of standardized tests have depicted the essays as lightning-fast, formulaic exercises that are unlikely to reveal much about a student's true writing abilities. "This test forces you to write very quickly with little time for reflection," says Adam Robinson, author of best-selling test preparation books. "There's no time for rewriting, which is the essence of good writing."

And the essence of good math is double-checking your work. Yet they time that too. Just sayin’ is all.

But enough small-fry excerpting. Let’s cut down to the money grafs here:

To guide scorers, the team has already approved a sample set of answers to a question about the benefits and drawbacks of secrecy. The "prompt," as an essay question is called in education parlance, consists of two quotations, one justifying secrecy as an indispensable part of human life, the other attacking it. Students are then asked to develop a point of view on secrecy, with examples to support their argument.

An essay that does little more than restate the question gets a 1. An essay that compares humans to squirrels -- if a squirrel told other squirrels about its food store, it would die, therefore secrecy is necessary for survival -- merits a 5. Brian A. Bremen, an English professor at the University of Texas at Austin, notes that the writer provides only one real example. Nevertheless, he says, the writer displays "a clear chain of thought" and should be rewarded, "despite his Republican tendencies."
And thus the real problem with essay testing is illuminated. Not just political bias, but all forms of bias, be they ideological, religious, or even methodological (preferring a certain style of writing) can be read, and will be read, into an essay. The strength of the SAT and ACT is its objectivity: a computer does the scoring and a right answer is a right answer is a right answer. Math doesn't depend on whether the person reading gets a certain pun or word play, or is amused by a certain writing technique.

Clear thinking, argument construction, and logic, the skills that an essay would purportedly measure, can be objectively measured through questions such as appear on the LSAT.

So why introduce subjective grading into a system that benefits from its objectivity? Well, not to sound conspiracy-minded, but I think at some levels it could be utilized by “progressive”-minded people such as Brian A. “Republican tendencies” Bremen to provide backdoor affirmative action. Some punk male Repug writing about squirrels could be knocked down a notch because he has only one “real” example (the other examples being merely Halliburton-style sleights of hand to fool the sheeple), while a star actress could be bumped up because she has “an engaging voice.”

I’m not saying that they were in these cases, I’m merely pointing out that subjectivity in grading allows for this sort of thing. And that “Republican tendencies” remark goes to show that even high school teachers, especially those in the field of English, can fall prey to the liberal groupthink of academia.

Objectivity—or color-blind, sex-blind grading—is the basis of any meritocracy. Of course there are very possibly some good arguments to be made in favor of essay testing on the SAT, but I think sacrificing the ideal of objectivity is not worth any of these. If it ain’t broke, then, you know, don’t purposefully try to break it just because you fancy yourself a social engineer.

And, I should add, the pressure to use the essay portion as backdoor affirmative action could increase if actual affirmative action is declared unconstitutional—something that might become more likely if studies like the one described in this Weekly Standard article are taken as seriously as they should be. Money grafs:

This week the Stanford Law Review will publish his article, "A Systematic Analysis of Affirmative Action in American Law Schools." By "affirmative action" in the law schools, Sander means the racially preferential variety used in admissions, and his focus is exclusively on preferences extended to blacks, the original beneficiary group, the other such groups having been added later (and for less compelling reasons).

The title of the 117-page study is as dull as Sander's conclusion is sharp. "What I find and describe," he writes, "is a system of racial preferences that, in one realm after another, produces more harms than benefits for its putative beneficiaries." Sander makes the further, riveting point that "the annual production of new black lawyers would probably increase if racial preference were abolished tomorrow."

Who is Richard Sander anyway? Perhaps not the man you would imagine from the analysis above. A lifelong Democrat, a liberal on most issues, he has a long record of involvement in civil rights issues, including housing segregation. His son is biracial. "So the question," he notes in the article, "of how nonwhites are treated and how they fare in higher education gives rise in me to all the doubts and worries of a parent." Because he favors race-conscious strategies in principle, his article is a classic instance of following an argument wherever it leads. At volokh.com--the blog where he summarized his findings--he wrote that he was "surprised and dismayed" by his "generally negative conclusions," which "put me at odds with many close friends."

Yeah, no matter the facts, you can be sure that the white-robed zealots from the Ivory Tower of Academia will ride out in favor of their favorite Utopian engineering project, affirmative action.

update: "hey hey kids" is a very arcane Simpsons reference. On Krusty the Clown's television show in one episode, the camera pan's back to him after an "Itchy and Scratchy" sketch gets done playing.

Krusty: (unaware that the sketch is over and that the camera is back on him) "I could pull a better cartoon out of my--(realizes the camera is on him) Hey hey kids!"

Thus "hey hey kids" is a euphemism for "ass" especially when "pull[ing]" items forth is mentioned in relation.

update 2: And, come on, "Essay-T"? Has there ever been a more brilliant blog-title? I don't mean to bludgeon you ever the head with my punniness... but man. Essay-T. A wordplay like that only comes along once in a great while. Savor it. Relish it.

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