I know, you’re thinking: How could I not know this battle was raging? How have I not heard the artillery fire?
You haven’t heard because it’s summer. And, truth be told, because the debate only matters to educators and parents of students bound for college in the U.S.
Not a small group of people, mind you.
At issue is the essay portion of the SAT test. A number of high-profile schools have ditched the essay requirement, leading other schools to wonder if they too should drop the essay.
SAT essays, for those who haven’t written them (I haven’t but I’m familiar with the process), usually ask students to analyze a short essay and comment on the writer’s rhetorical strategies. The SAT essay is a highly formal piece of writing, the definition of an academic starched shirt.
So why keep the essay component?
Mainly to filter out cheaters. Students write SATs in a controlled testing environment, and so colleges know that the essay was written by the student whose name is on the paper and not a ghost writer.
The reasons to nix the essay are many. Some of the schools argue equality. They say the cost of preparing for the essay can discourage lower-income students from taking the SAT. Other schools say the essay is redundant. Students have to write a persuasive letter when they apply to most schools, so why ask them to spend money, time and stress on an essay?
The strongest argument, in my mind, has to do with the utility of the essay. Does the requirement that students write a formulaic essay indicate anything other than a student’s ability to write a formulaic essay?
That said, I’d rather see standardized tests incorporate a written component than not.
Removing the essay from the SAT communicates the wrong message to high school students. It says that essays – and writing in general – aren’t important enough to warrant space on such an influential test.
This is a tragic message to send to students.
Of course, this may be exactly the message schools mean to send.
The fact is that writing is regularly diminished in universities and colleges. Writing instruction is often underfunded and understaffed, and many students never learn a thing about how to write. If they do, it’s usually uninspiring or else formulated to teach students how to complete a task, like writing a lab report or producing summaries.
Writing instruction should take priority, especially in the university. The combination of writing and speaking is thought itself. We figure out what we’re trying to say by saying it, by writing it down. Only when we find the language can we grasp the idea.
What we cannot speak, we cannot think. So said philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein.
And, by extension, if you can’t express yourself, you won’t find yourself.
Teaching writing is labour-intensive and expensive work – but it’s work that returns its investment many times over. When you teach a person how to write, you give them a voice. Voice is liberating.
Standardized tests, like the SAT, should reinforce the pre-eminent position writing has in the academy – or is supposed to have.
The writing doesn’t have to be formulaic. An autobiographical prompt can generate good writing and help a school assess the student’s aptitude for writing.
Princeton has the right idea. That school asks students to hand in a graded high school essay. This tactic reveals the student’s ability as a writer and sheds light on the quality of feedback the student has been receiving in high school.
Whatever the means, universities and colleges need to impress on prospective students that the quality of thought – and the potential for high quality thought – matters.
And that’s another way of saying that writing matters.
Troy Media columnist Robert Price is an assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga.
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