The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"Do not on any account attempt to write on both sides of the paper at once."...  ...W.C. Sellar and R.J. Yeatman.

Commentary of the Day - September 20, 2004:  My Son, the SAT Guinea Pig.  Guest commentary by Felice Prager.

An English teacher I worked with told me that the way he marked essays was exactly how his English teacher marked essays when he was a student.  He would stand at the top of the stairway and throw all of the essays high into the air.  The grade a student received was based upon how the essay landed. The essays that landed at the top of the pile would get D's because they didn't put in enough effort to weigh the essay down.  The papers that landed at the bottom would get C's because there was too much to read.  All of the other papers would receive B's because that was a decent enough grade.  No one got A's because A's meant the students were perfect, and this teacher was the only one who had met a level of perfection worthy of an A.

Anyone who has worked in a school where there is a faculty room with teachers interacting could probably tell similar tales.  In truth, I sat with this teacher many times as he agonized about grading essays.  Never once did I see him toss them in the air.  Yet, I would humor him when he told new teachers about his weighted method of grading because it made about as much sense as any other method we were using at the time.

For me, it was always easy to find the A's and the F's in a pile of essays.  The rest of the grades were difficult to determine.  Sometimes putting a letter or a number on a paper became as difficult as writing an article about the methodology behind it.  Did the student develop an organized paper?   Was it interesting?  Did he use good word choices?  Was his sentence structure effective?  Was his grammar questionable?  Was I subconsciously including this student's obnoxious personality into my judgment?  Was I missing a point?  Did the student have a point at all?  Was I being swayed by the person's handwriting?   Was I too tired to be rational?   Was I sick of reading the papers?  I was never confident that my grades were fair.

In my current job as an educational therapist, I am called upon to address a wide variety of needs in learning disabled students.  For instance, this past summer, I worked one-on-one with a high school junior who was having difficulty with essay writing.  The school district uses the Jane Schaffer Writing Method which is an organizational method of writing multi-paragraph essays, and my student just didn't get it.

Since my son is in the same school district, I questioned him about this writing method.  "Don't you remember those boring essays I had to write all last year?"

"Refresh my memory," I replied.  Sometimes I can remember details about 1971 better than I can remember current details in my life.

"Don't you remember?  Topic sentence. Concrete Detail. Commentary. Commentary.  Concrete Detail. Commentary.  Commentary.  Concrete Detail. Commentary.  Commentary.  Closing sentence.  You proofread those essays for me all last year…the ones you said were so dull and monotonous…the ones I got A's on because they were dull and monotonous…the ones I complained about all year?  Don't you remember?"

I did remember.  Then I started hyperventilating.

I hyperventilate a lot.  Sometimes I faint.

By any other name, and there are many, what Jane Schaffer is amounts to a five-paragraph formula to help students write essays in an organized fashion.  For me, this would be a death sentence, but I try to stay far away from writing expository essays.  It's a health issue.

You will also notice that I am way past five paragraphs now, and I still haven't made my point.  I also still have your attention.
A lot of school districts and teachers swear by the Jane Schaffer method -   Where I work, we have a similar method called "Step Into Writing" which offers a multisensory approach to the same method.  We use the same general outline to help a student generate an organized paper except with the multisensory approach we use colored paper and cut outs of stars and dots to help a student see the bigger picture.  For students such as mine, having a method of organization helps them stay on task.  In my experience, both as a parent and as an educator, it also helps most of them hate writing more than they did before they started.

To justify it, I've heard myself mumble half-heartedly to my son and my students, "That's the type of writing you will have to do in college, so you better just deal with it."  Sometimes when I say that, I develop hives.

Thus, after many paragraphs, I can now address the subject of my essay: the writing portion of the New SAT.

My son (17, Junior, Honors Student, Kid with Mohawk, Sandwich Artist at Subway, Guitar player in The Comebacks, New SAT Guinea Pig) has been coming home from school with tales of woe about the writing section of the New SAT and what is required.  To say he's stressed is minimizing it.  Increasing the requirements on the math and verbal sections isn't a problem for him.  He would have been happy figuring out analogies had they not eliminated them from the test.  However, according to the kid in the trenches, it's the fact that he has to "write a Jane Schaffer essay in less than a half hour" that has him overwhelmed.  Students are usually given several days to perfect a five-paragraph essay.  On the New SAT, they will have 25 minutes to do this same task.

I don't know about the rest of the thinking world, but writing against the clock just doesn't work for me.  I have to sit with an idea for awhile until I develop it to my liking.  A lot of it happens in my head before I even consider writing.  Plus, I write best on a computer where I can copy, paste, expand, delete, and play with words until they all fit well.  But let's forget about me; I'm a writer.  What do I know?

To be fair, I have read most of the contents of the College Board's New SAT site.  It's a very extensive site and for any educator or parent, I suggest finding a long stretch of time to peruse it.

The following excerpt comes from and addresses the writing section of the New SAT:

Q: How can students be expected to produce a polished essay in 25 minutes?

The College Board recognizes that an essay written in a short amount of time will not be polished. It is just a first draft and will be scored as such.  The essay will be similar to the on-demand writing required for in-class college exams.

Q: How will the essays be scored?

Essays will be scored in a manner that is fair and consistent, using a holistic approach.  In holistic scoring, a piece of writing is considered as a total work, the whole of which is greater than the sum of its parts.  The essay will be scored by qualified readers, who will take into account such aspects as complexity of thought, substantiality of development, and facility with language.

Each essay will be scored separately by two readers who won't know the other's score.  Each reader will give the essay a score from 1 to 6 (6 is the highest score), based on the overall quality of the essay and its demonstration of writing competence.  If the two readers' scores differ by more than one point, a scoring leader will resolve the difference.  The essay score will equal one-third of the entire score for the writing section.

Q: Who will score the essays?

The essay will be scored by trained high school and college teachers who have at least three years of classroom experience.

Q: What constitutes a good essay?

The short essay is designed to measure a student's ability to think critically and to develop ideas in a thoughtful, cogent, and coherent essay.

The essay prompt (either a pair of quotations or a short paragraph adapted from some authentic text) gives students the opportunity to draw on a broad range of experiences, learning, and ideas to support their points of view on the issue in question.  Students may write about literature, the arts, sports, politics, technology and science, history, current events, or personal observations, among other topics.  Students may accept or reject the idea presented in the prompt to whatever extent they see fit and draw on the rhetorical approach that best suits their writing style.  For instance, some students may use an expository or argumentative style; others may structure essays through comparison or contrast, or other techniques.

Q: Will spelling, grammar, and handwriting affect the score?

Spelling errors will not affect a student's score unless they are so pervasive that they get in the way of the reader understanding the essay.  Even with some errors in punctuation and grammar, a student can get a top score on the essay.  Similarly, handwriting will not be evaluated, but essay readers must be able to decipher a student's handwriting.  Accommodations will be made for students who have a documented disability that requires the use of a computer and meets College Board guidelines for testing accommodations.

I don't know about the rest of you, but my New SAT-induced hives have now become a full-body rash.  The College Board site has a detailed explanation of exactly how the essays will be graded, who will be grading them, specific reader qualifications and training, quality assurance, and scoring criteria.  They lost me with "hello."

My perspective goes back to the 17-year-old kid who lives in that messy room at the end of the hall and the high school junior I work with every Monday and Wednesday.  Both of them are stressed about the changes.  Both feel that writing an essay, no matter how unpolished it's supposed to be, in 25-minutes is unreasonable.  Both hate the five-paragraph writing method.  Both have taken and will be taking the PSAT (which, oddly enough, does not have an essay requirement.)  Both have teachers who are stressing the importance of the five-paragraph essay and the need to write quickly and efficiently.

To quote both of them, "Topic sentence.  Concrete Detail.  Commentary.  Commentary.  Concrete Detail.  Commentary.  Commentary.  Concrete Detail.  Commentary.  Commentary. Closing sentence.”

To quote me, "Boring."

To quote me again, "I've fallen and I can't get up!"

To quote me a third time, "I'm mad as hell, and I can't take it anymore."

And here is one more interesting tidbit:

One of the sites I stumbled upon using the keywords "Jane Schaffer writing college" argued against the five-paragraph writing method with the following:

"Still, many students enter college relying on writing strategies that served them well in high school but that won't serve them well here.  Old formulae, such as the five-paragraph theme, aren't sophisticated or flexible enough to provide a sound structure for a college paper.  And many of the old tricks -- such as using elevated language or repeating yourself so that you might meet a ten-page requirement -- will fail you now."  This is from Dartmouth's web site  Dartmouth, for those not in the loop, was tied for 9th place (with Columbia University) in the US News and World Report  college rankings.

So let me ask this about that -- If the students are not supposed to be using a five-paragraph method once they get to college, why do they have to learn this method and why are they being tested on it in order to get INTO college?

The question is rhetorical.

©2004 Felice Prager.
Felice Prager is a former English teacher and freelance writer from Arizona.  She publishes the Write Funny pages.

The IP comments: Ah Felice you miss the whole point of this SAT exercise.  It's to see how well students can perform on those college midterm exams that require the student to produce short essays on demand.  Now the fact that, except at the most exclusive colleges, most instructors long ago abandoned the essay exam in favor of the machine-scored, multiple choice exam is entirely beside the point.  Those SAT people are making damn sure that the students of today are well prepared for the colleges of yesterday.

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© 2004 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.