The essay has provoked many criticisms (here, here, and here), but the loudest critic of the essay these days is David Coleman, the president of the College Board, which administers the SAT. Coleman was the lead architect of the Common Core State Standards, which now shape the English Language Arts and Math curriculums in public primary and secondary schools in 45 states. He’s been praised by Arne Duncan, Bill Clinton, Time magazine, and others as a champion of academic reform. He has now turned his attention to fixing the essay section of the SAT.
Speaking to the National Association for College Admission Counseling a few weeks ago, Coleman bemoaned the fact that SAT graders paid no attention to the accuracy of an essay’s claims in scoring it. He seemed particularly dismayed that a friend of his who tutors in Hong Kong goes so far as to advise her students to fabricate essay examples. When he recounted this same anecdote last year at the Brookings Institution, he elaborated, “Now I'm all for creativity and innovation, but I don't think that's quite the creativity we want to inspire in a generation of youth.”
Coleman has suggested that the essay assignment should no longer ask test-takers to come up with examples of their own. Instead, they should analyze some documents and incorporate them into their response to the prompt.
Coleman is to be commended for recognizing, as none of his predecessors did, that the SAT pushes students to practice. And so, as he told the New York Times in August, the test should focus on “things that matter more so that the endless hours students put into practicing for the SAT will be work that’s worth doing.” But will practicing for the new essay be worth doing?
The way one answers this question depends in large part on what one thinks good writing is. Coleman has given us his criteria. At Brookings last fall, he argued, “If writing is to be ready for the demands of career and college, it must be precise, it must be accurate, it must draw upon evidence.”
These are only some of the things most college-ready writing must be, however. College essays also need to be typed and spellchecked, but the SAT essay is handwritten and spelling errors do not matter. Specious as that comparison might sound, it is a fact that in the age of Google, accuracy and evidence are, like layout and spelling, problems solved as much by technology as by personal know-how. It is marvelously simple to confirm a statement, but it is devilishly hard to write a well-balanced sentence. As of yet, there is no app for rhetoric or style.
The literary scholar Stanley Fish has repeatedly argued that style and rhetoric should in fact be the only concern of composition instructors. I am inclined to agree with him that what makes a work of writing great is its form (the way it is written) rather than its content (what it is written about). Alice Munro and David Foster Wallace are tremendous writers not because they write about anything particularly special but because they write about everything in a special way.