Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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September 17, 2006
By: Kevin Drum

PROSE SLAM....Do you think you can write as well as the average high school senior who takes the new writing portion of the SAT test? Now's your chance to find out! Dave Munger and Chad Orzel are settling a bet or something, and they need volunteers for a writing exercise. If you want to be one of them, click here for instructions. It only takes 20 minutes.

Kevin Drum 11:45 PM Permalink | Trackbacks | Comments (28)

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Wow, small world. Dave is married to my Psych 101 Proffessor.

Posted by: Don Zeko on September 18, 2006 at 12:04 AM | PERMALINK

I dunno. I write pretty good.

Posted by: craigie on September 18, 2006 at 12:36 AM | PERMALINK

Awwww...bloggers only!

Posted by: Ren on September 18, 2006 at 1:00 AM | PERMALINK

There's a reason forced essay-writing has been used as punishment in totalitarian societies: it is the ultimate act of intrusion upon freedom of thought because it demands the subject produce the doctrine in their own words; the victim must give their "own appreciation" of the dogma and "relate it to their own life".

Of course, our schools don't approach being totalitarian gulags, though I think there are definite parralles. In my schooling (in the late 90's), censorship of opinion was generally not a problem, but I strongly disliked how writing and "critical thinking" were taught. Standardized written tests are merely the extreme example of these problems.

Generic prompts are especially pernicious because they demand that the writer have an opinion but not really have an opinion, thereby rewarding disengenuousness. The problem is not that test takers are significantly persecuted by graders for having improper opinions but rather that the tests are far easier for those with trite opinions. Intelligent, honest people think hard when formulating their opinions and naturally censor themselves until they have something to say which they themselves would find worth reading. A primary value of writing is as a process of discovery, and those who understood this, at least at an intuittive level, may have a hard time detaching themselves to write cynically (note the irony: you may be punished for cynical opinions but rewarded for cynically writing treacle).

The solution, I think, is to first of all not try to mix tests for different subjects/skills together. Are these generic-prompt essays supposed to test students for their creativity? Their original thinking? Their analytical skills? If not, using prompts which "anyone can respond to equally as well as other people" is not a real solution because such prompts do not exist. For reasons I suggested above, sticking to "generic life experience" questions biases against people for whom forming and offering such opinions is not done quickly or lightly; we don't all read self-help books and watch Oprah.

Second, students should not be forced to come up with any ideas at all. If we're going to be giving them silly prompts that call for superficial answers, we may as well provide all the information. So rather than writing an essay from scratch, students would rewrite a given essay to improve it. This would not only put the focus on all-important rewriting skills, it would help simplify and standardize grading.

Posted by: apantomimehorse on September 18, 2006 at 1:30 AM | PERMALINK

Intelligent, honest people think hard when formulating their opinions and naturally censor themselves until they have something to say which they themselves would find worth reading.

I couldn't tell if this post was a parody until I read that.

Posted by: craigie on September 18, 2006 at 1:50 AM | PERMALINK

Ren-check the site again. They seem to be opening it up to non-bloggers.

apantomimehorse-You have some very interesting ideas. I especially like the idea of using rewrites instead of original writing. I spend my days working with students on their writing, and grading it, and these kinds of assessments are killers. They are completely artificial, meaningless and stressful to students, and they promote the teaching of formulaic composition patterns which are pretty much the opposite of what we would all like to read.

Posted by: anna on September 18, 2006 at 2:40 AM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: gnjkl on September 18, 2006 at 2:46 AM | PERMALINK

"Schooled in the late 1990s." It shows.

Posted by: fizz on September 18, 2006 at 2:59 AM | PERMALINK

"I couldn't tell if this post was a parody until I read that."

Are you referring to my blunt topic sentences? I wrote the thing in different chunks and then reassembled, so the transitions aren't great.

"promote the teaching of formulaic composition patterns which are pretty much the opposite of what we would all like to read."

And this is entirely counterproductive if we're supposed to be fostering critical, independant thinking. Forcing students to confront subject matter has its place, but is it a mystery why students don't see the point of reading and writing when the only experience is being forced to do these things?

Posted by: apantomimehorse on September 18, 2006 at 3:03 AM | PERMALINK

"'Schooled in the late 1990s.' It shows."

Explain.

Posted by: apantomimehorse on September 18, 2006 at 3:12 AM | PERMALINK

"I couldn't tell if this post was a parody until I read that."

I'm not sure if it is satire, craigie. But this makes me wonder: "Second, students should not be forced to come up with any ideas at all."

Hmm...

Posted by: Gray on September 18, 2006 at 4:40 AM | PERMALINK

Oops, I now see that A.P. Horse already clarified that point: "Forcing students to confront subject matter has its place".

This sounds better. I don't really believe that students without the ability to have ideas should be allowed to pass :)

Posted by: Gray on September 18, 2006 at 4:45 AM | PERMALINK

"Second, students should not be forced to come up with any ideas at all."

Taken alone, the sentence sounds bad, but you all seem to be skimming, not reading. In the context, I'm clearly talking about generic-prompt essays which are supposed to test writing ability. (Either that, or I just failed the test.)

If you're a generation older, maybe you're not familiar with the sort of essays we're talking about. Here's a typical prompt:

"Describe a friend or relative who is following in the footsteps of a great person."

I'd say that example's about average for these things on the scales of 'touchy feeliness' and 'privacy invasion'.

Posted by: apantomimehorse on September 18, 2006 at 5:20 AM | PERMALINK

"Taken alone, the sentence sounds bad, but you all seem to be skimming, not reading."

It's the starting sentence of the last paragraph, and I don't see anything following it that contradicts the message. Pls don't blame us for a misleading statement you wrote, ok?

"If you're a generation older, maybe you're not familiar with the sort of essays we're talking about."

Hmm, how about 'Describe the last time you cried', the topic I had to write about in school. Of course, I made things up.

Posted by: Gray on September 18, 2006 at 5:51 AM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: qq on September 18, 2006 at 6:05 AM | PERMALINK

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Posted by: Gray on September 18, 2006 at 7:29 AM | PERMALINK

Will essays written by Al and mock essays written by fake Al be scored separately? It almost seems like cheating when your philosophy is based on a construct and doesn't respect reality.

Posted by: Al on September 18, 2006 at 8:12 AM | PERMALINK

"if we're supposed to be fostering critical, independant thinking"

False assumption. Thinking is the icing on the cake. Writing is the cake. If the kid can write a clear and organized essay, he can write. If he can use his writing to develop his thoughts, he has gone beyond school.

You don't ask math students to develop their answers beyond the problem solved, do you? Occasionally one can. He has gone beyond school.

Outcomes have to be super clear with kids. To mark "thinking" is to mark what is not being taught. That is unfair.

Posted by: Bob M on September 18, 2006 at 11:55 AM | PERMALINK

apantomimehorse,

So rather than writing an essay from scratch, students would rewrite a given essay to improve it. This would not only put the focus on all-important rewriting skills, it would help simplify and standardize grading.

that's the first good idea I've ever heard in relation to testing writing skills.

Posted by: Edo on September 18, 2006 at 3:01 PM | PERMALINK

I'm guessing the kids kick the bloggers asses.

The major difference is that the kids are having a bit of a adrenalin rush as they take a test that decides which school they can go to, which girlfriends they'll have, what job prospects they'll have, etc.

The bloggers are just sitting in their underwear trying to wake up with a cup of coffee.

Posted by: B on September 18, 2006 at 7:58 PM | PERMALINK

That was pretty hard, since I haven't written an actual essay in forever. Blogs and internetaction tend to favor the short and precise, as well as challenging premises. So I did both of those in my admission, pointing out the oversimplification of the question based upon a great quote/insight, as well as wrapping my whole essay in just three paragraphs. In the end, I said everything I would have anyway, but in the SAT environment, which I would have prepared myself for (as well as been used to doing longer essays for English class), I would have used more examples, expanded the length of the example I used, and painted a little more color into my conclusion by going into more detail about what it doesn't suggest.

Posted by: Jimm on September 18, 2006 at 8:15 PM | PERMALINK

Also, the 20-minute time limit is tough, and I'm not even sure I met it because I lost track of what time I started, so it's not really conducive to a lot of political bloggers, who spend lots of time considering an issue while not writing, in order to get it right. In the SAT environment, you have no preparation, and the best strategy would be to not worry about the soundness of your conclusions, or their consistency with your overall worldview, and instead just starting writing away the first conclusion that comes to mind, and make sure it all adds up to a valid argument.

Posted by: Jimm on September 18, 2006 at 8:18 PM | PERMALINK

Don't take this the wrong way when I say this but I think the test is bloody easy. Its about time the bar is raised for the education levels in the states anyway.

Posted by: Paid Online Survey on September 20, 2006 at 12:08 AM | PERMALINK

A recap, part 1 With Digital ID World in the books as a success, I always like to take a look back at "what I learned." As an organizer of the conference, Digital ID World is always a whirlwind experience for me, but I find that as I look back

Posted by: Johanson on September 20, 2006 at 1:32 AM | PERMALINK




 

 

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