April 11, 2021

John Warner: Taking the SAT with the Breakout Expert from Operation Varsity Blues

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John Warner is the author of Why They Can’t Write, the book every writing teacher should read. Recently he undertook a special testing adventure, and found just the person to help him make sense of it all.

It’s been a long time since I took a college admissions test (1987), and I’m sure some things have changed. I figure, if I’m going to write about the challenges today’s students face, I should be more informed about the specifics of those challenges. In high school, I was one of those kids who benefited greatly from test scores that outstripped my grades. My combined SAT score was over 1400, with my verbal a little higher than my math.

As a teacher of writing, and because I’m terrified to see how low I would score on the math, I figured I’d start with the verbal section.

So that the integrity of the test would be unquestionable, and because I knew I’d have a lot of questions about the history and development of the test, I asked my friend Akil Bello to administer and score it for me.

When it comes to high stakes college admissions tests, Akil Bello has seen and done it all, from teaching for the Princeton Review in the 1990s to working as Founder and CEO of test prep company Bell Curves later on, to now serving as Senior Director of Advocacy and Advancement at FairTest, where he “works to build resources and tools to ensure that large scale assessment tests are used responsibly and transparently to benefit students.”

The interview is an invaluable look inside the workings of the infamous test, providing many insights into both the SAT and testing in general.

JW: What strikes me about the underlying values the test conveys about writing is that its insistence on “correctness” saps writing of the stuff that audiences actually respond to — voice, style, energy. Whatever virtues I have as a writer, and whatever success I’ve had is in my willingness to be “me” on the page. This is perhaps incompatible with school, but it’s a benefit in the wider world to be able to play with language in a way that’s appropriate to the audience.

AB: I think the issue is standardized tests are inherently limited to technically correct things. It can’t test anything that is built on nuance or writer’s preference because then you cannot claim one answer is correct above the others. That’s likely the reason the Oxford comma is not tested in even cases where you can argue that meaning would require the use of the comma. A good multiple choice test avoids anything that is ambiguous or debatable, which may to some also make that same test a bad multiple choice test since it becomes very pedantic.

Read the full post at Education Endeavor’s substack.

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