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No. 2 pencil blues

Education | The new SAT launches a new breed of high-school essayists

Issue: "Big mouth on campus," March 12, 2005

Jim Lindsay has a message for the six Highland Park High School juniors staying after school to prepare for the new written portion of the Scholastic Aptitude Test: "You will be getting fives and sixes when I'm done with you." Today, with 35 weeks to go before the premiere of the new SAT, his students are test-driving techniques he says can increase their essay score. The six-point essay, a 25-minute timed writing exercise, has high-schoolers the country over sweating bullets as its first testing date arrives this month.

The class at the Dallas-area school starts by reading sample essays. Then, the six juniors turn to an empty page in their large purple SAT prep book and begin writing. Today's Rorschach-like essay topic: "There is always a 'however.'" The room grows silent for nearly a half hour. What follows are hand cramps, pencil-smudged fingers, and-they hope-a better understanding of what the real test will be like. The stakes are high for the students. One or two points higher on the essay could mean acceptance into the college of their choice in fall 2006.

The SAT marks the biggest academic event of the year for most 11th-graders. Almost all of the nation's colleges and universities use the SAT as part of their admissions formula. So when the SAT announced it would add a whole new writing section, including a timed essay, it posed a fresh challenge to college hopefuls and sparked a debate over the very notion of what makes good writing.

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On March 12 when the first set of college-minded juniors sharpen their No. 2 pencils and take the test, they'll notice other changes besides the addition of a timed essay.

Gone are the dreaded analogies. Also eliminated were quantitative comparisons in the math section. Multiple-choice grammar questions will join the 25-minute essay to form the new writing section of the test. Instead of a 1,600-point grading system, the new SAT will give three scores out of 800. And the new test will not only push four hours, but in its lengthiness will push a student's perseverance.

Some education experts worry that with the new format, teachers will teach just one form of writing-the timed essay. Christine Parker, an educator-turned-executive with Princeton Review, a company that prepares students to take the SAT, questions what exactly the 25-minute essay teaches about writing. "If there's one thing that I do know it's that really good writing isn't the result of sitting down for 25 minutes and writing," she said. "It's a great test of grammar and spelling. But it doesn't leave room for students who may be very sophisticated creative writers."

Three of her colleagues at Princeton Review last year penned a report for The Atlantic Monthly charging that some of the greatest English-speaking writers would earn failing grades on their essays on the new SAT. The article "Would Shakespeare Get Into Swarthmore?" answers its own question: No. And neither would Earnest Hemingway if he submitted a portion of his 1954 speech accepting a Nobel Prize. The Princeton Review executives argue that SAT graders would dock both writers for submitting a loosely organized body of prose.

Brian O'Reilly, a director with the College Board, the nonprofit association that sponsors the test, responds, "If Shakespeare knew the writing assignment, he definitely could do it better than a high-schooler. . . . That's utter nonsense." He said the test will force teachers and students to learn the building blocks of composition. The writing on demand required by the SAT will help students with any writing endeavor. And, he says, "Good writers will write well no matter the circumstance."

Meanwhile, Mr. Lindsay, an endorsed consultant for the College Board, teaches his students a few tricks in the 25-hour session. Besides composing a quick outline-he says he can spot an essay written sans outline from a distance-he tells his students to have a point and defend it. Vocabulary counts, he reminds them. And one more thing: "Use at least one telegraphic sentence-four or fewer words." End with a bang.

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