May 5, 2005
For the new SAT writing test, it’s not what you write, but how much. Les Perelman, a director of undergraduate writing at MIT, analyzed every graded sample SAT essay the College Board made public:
“Because M.I.T. is a place where everything is backed by data, I went to my hotel room, counted the words in those essays and put them in an Excel spreadsheet on my laptop.”
He was stunned by how complete the correlation was between length and score. “I have never found a quantifiable predictor in 25 years of grading that was anywhere near as strong as this one,” he said. “If you just graded them based on length without ever reading them, you’d be right over 90 percent of the time.” The shortest essays, typically 100 words, got the lowest grade of one. The longest, about 400 words, got the top grade of six. In between, there was virtually a direct match between length and grade.
He was also struck by all the factual errors in even the top essays. An essay on the Civil War, given a perfect six, describes the nation being changed forever by the “firing of two shots at Fort Sumter in late 1862.” (Actually, it was in early 1861, and, according to “Battle Cry of Freedom” by James M. McPherson, it was “33 hours of bombardment by 4,000 shot and shells.”)
Turns out the College Board doesn’t actually care about accuracy: as the official guide for scorers puts it, “Writers may make errors in facts or information that do not affect the quality of their essays.”
What should students do?
“I would advise writing as long as possible,” said Dr. Perelman, “and include lots of facts, even if they’re made up.”
It’s not what he’s teaching his MIT classes, but hey, whatever works.
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