Sunday, June 05, 2005

Size Does Matter

Apparently, size does matter, at least in education. Some who value the skill of writing prose were initially encouraged that the SAT was going to add an essay component to the traditional multiple choice English portion of the test. Unfortunately, it turns out that the SAT's new essay test rewards bad writing, with sheer length being a predictor of one's score. Factual accuracy, on the other hand, is explicitly not a criterion. In an article entitled "New SAT: Write Long, Badly, and Prosper", Les Perelman (director of the undergraduate writing program at MIT) reports on his experience as an SAT essay grader: "Longer essays consistently score higher. Shortly after the test was first administered in March, I looked at scored samples that were made public, including the set used to train graders. I discovered that I could guess an essay's prescribed score just by looking at its length - even from across a room." With the professional test preparation racket well-tuned to the actual (rather than intended) predictors of success in the SAT, the inevitable effect of the new SAT will be to train high school students to write badly. (Had Heisenberg contemplated college preparatory testing, he would have conceived his principle sooner.)

Meanwhile, the California Assembly has just decided that school textbooks are too long. Believing this crisis to be a matter requiring legal intervention, Assembly Bill 756 prohibits the state from purchasing textbooks greater than 200 pages in length. (Hat tip: Kip Esquire). (This astonishing embarassment, sad to say, was authored by my Assemblymember, Jackie Goldberg. She should have been trying to persuade a few more of her colleagues about gay marriage, rather than wasting time on this nonsense.) I'm just aghast. It calls to mind the scene in Amadeus when Mozart performs a new piece for the Emperor, and the imperial courtiers trying to sabotage Mozart criticize his perfect masterpiece saying "Too many notes.Yes, too many notes. There are only so many notes that the royal ear can hear." To which an infuriated Mozart wondered whether he should just chop off the end. Indeed, one Republican Assemblymember noted that if a teacher wanted to use the Bible, it would be truncated somewhere in the Old Testament. Kip notes that the Federalist Papers are also too long. For goodness sake, has Jackie Goldberg looked at the length of Harry Potter books, which elementary school kids are clamoring to read? Of course, the textbook publishers are already planning just to repackage material in multiple volumes (which will of course increase the cost). Not that the Assembly has any business micromanaging textbook selection at all, but this is extraordinarily ridiculous.

I guess it won't matter that we're training our children to write badly, carelessly, and excessively long. No one will have the attention span to read what they write.

1 comment:

Nancy Taylor said...

Thomas, Great piece! Don't get me started on the educational system! There is an agenda and it isn't good. Cousin Nancy