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Writing shouldn’t be formulatic

03/19/2014

On March 3, future college students everywhere could breathe a collective sigh of relief: the College Board—administrators of the SAT exam—announced that the essay portion of the test would be optional starting in 2016. Good riddance, I say.

The organization gave two reasons for the change: first, a student’s performance on a single timed essay exam is not necessarily predictive of how they would fair in a college-level English course. Second, most College Board admissions officers found the essay unhelpful.

A debate began with the change in testing policy: just how should colleges measure the writing skills of prospective students?

I don’t think a single, timed essay exam will tell you much. I took the SAT but don’t remember the writing portion, probably because I subconsciously blocked the experience from memory.

Despite always being considered a “good” writer, I hate—hate hate hate—timed essay tests. I freeze up and get lost endlessly rewording one sentence or something stupid like that, and before I know it, I’m out of time.

This semester I took the English Competency Exam (ECE), a graduation requirement here at JSU. It was not a pleasant experience; I was the last person to turn my blue exam book in after a sweaty, agonizing 90 minutes. I passed, though.

Here’s the thing: good writing is about drafting and revision, not what you can turn out in 25 or 50 minutes or even an hour and a half.
Still, Susan Sellers, director of the ECE, says that competently communicating through the written word is an important skill for college graduates.

“Is a timed setting or a rubric the ideal option for scoring a student’s writing? Some may agree, and others may disagree,” she said in an email exchange with me.

“However, it can serve as a baseline to demonstrate basic competency skills in composition and grammatical accuracy by a student, whether seeking admittance to college or graduating from college.”

According to statistics gathered by Complete College America from 33 states, 50 percent of two-year and 20 percent of four-year college students are enrolling in remedial or “developmental” writing and math classes.

So there’s a disconnect between grade school math and writing curriculums and what is expected of college freshmen. While a single timed essay test might show that deficiency, it also encourages an alarming trend among students who stress about writing a passing essay: writing according to a “formula.”

Many timed essay tests rely on a formula for grading. Essays are examined for pre-specified “major” errors. If you know the major errors set forth in the rubric, it’s easy to write an essay that will receive a passing grade.

Some students have even hired coaches to train them to produce writing that will hold up under the scrutiny of such a grading algorithm. The College Board says its decision to make the essay portion of the SAT optional may buck that trend.

But increasingly, we’re looking to computer algorithms to edit or even construct our writing in professional settings, too.

There’s a new app called ‘Hemingway’ that edits users’ writing according to a pre-determined algorithm. Several large media outlets, including Forbes.com and The Los Angeles Times, rely on algorithm-based reporting for data-heavy stories.

But it’s my opinion that writing is an art form, not a list of ‘if-then’ requirements or formulas—I hope that we never lose sight of that.

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