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Is The SAT Creating A Generation Of Bad Writers?


Next week, hundreds of thousands of students, armed with number two pencils...


SIMON: ...will sit down to take the SAT. An important section of the college entrance test is the essay portion. And students have just 25 minutes to write it. Anne Ruggles Gere, who oversees the writing program at the University of Michigan, is not a fan of the essay section. She says that high schools now teach to the test and as a result encourage a generation of bad writers. We spoke with Professor Gere, who was in the studios of WUOM in Ann Arbor, and we asked her how the SAT encourages sloppy prose.

ANNE RUGGLES GERE: I think that it does it in several ways. Because when you're writing in only 25 minutes, you don't have time to develop a clear, complex idea. You don't have time to think about an audience. It makes students think of writing in the most simplistic, reductive ways. It emphasizes length of writing. It emphasizes use big words and be sure to follow a very simple formula.

SIMON: So, the students will use it as an opportunity to use the word sesquipedalian over and over or show off their vocabulary and stuff?

GERE: Absolutely. In fact, that is advice that students are given. Be sure and use the longest possible word you can. Don't settle for anything simple. And often what they end up doing is inventing a great deal. I've talked with teachers who have evaluated these, and one was telling me a story about this student who wrote about his whole family dying in a plane crash. Well, maybe that happened but it's entirely possible that it didn't.

SIMON: I'm wondering, professor, those who are on the College Board say in fact they don't believe there's a formula, there's not shortcuts and the people who are doing the reading know how to spot gimmicks.

GERE: The teachers that I have talked to who are scorers certainly do know how to spot gimmicks. And I think that's why the teacher who told me the story about the whole family killed in the plane crash was spotting the gimmick. But that that doesn't prevent students from trying to use those gimmicks. They're trying to, in some way, make themselves distinctive and capture the attention of readers who, at best, are going to be skimming what they're reading because the scoring process for the SAT requires the scores - if you are hired as a scorer, what you have to be able to do is to read 20 essays in an hour, which is three minutes per essay. And if you are trying to earn extra money, you get a bonus if you can read 30.

SIMON: I certainly didn't know this. So, the graders get a cash bounty for being superficial.

GERE: And for being very fast. I was talking with one teacher who actually decided not to stay in the business. She was somebody who had figured out how to read very fast and crank out the essays. She got the bonuses. She was able to read papers in two minutes per paper. And what she said was it was a soul-crushing experience and she finally had to walk away from it. Because what she was being asked to do was to pretend that kids who had learned how to perform in this way was the same thing as saying that they were good writers, and she simply could not do that.

SIMON: Anne Ruggles Gere is the director of the Gayle Morris Sweetland Center for Writing at the University of Michigan. She joined us from Ann Arbor. Thanks so much for being with us.

GERE: Well, thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.