Commentary: The man who killed the SAT essay
Les Perelman’s crusade against the SAT essay began in 2005. That’s when the new portion of the test was introduced: a 25-minute speed writing assignment, on such weighty-yet-vague topics as “philanthropy” and “progress,” designed to test high school students’ readiness for college. Or something like that.
Perelman, then a writing professor at MIT, remembers sitting at a conference on college composition that year, hearing a speech about the newfangled test. He was handed a slick pamphlet — titled “Score Right” — that contained 65 graded essays.
“I went back to my hotel room and did what any MIT nerd would do,” Perelman told me. “I started counting the words in the essays and the scores, put them in an Excel spreadsheet, and got the highest correlation coefficient I’ve ever gotten in writing.”
In other words, the longer your essay, the higher your score. That quick calculation launched Perelman into years of research, experiments and eloquent rants.
And recently, the retired professor won a stunning victory. The College Board, which administers the SAT, announced that the essay will now be optional. In a New York Times Magazine story, David Coleman, the College Board president, largely credited Perelman for the change.
They ought to be holding parades for Les Perelman at high schools across the country; plenty of people rail against the SAT, but few of them get action. Perelman, 66, is bemused by the turn of events. “For someone in the humanities to actually have an effect on society — it’s not what usually happens,” he said.
Then again, Perelman approached the SAT with a writer’s skill at well-worded persuasion. He also had logic and data on his side. On the face of it, the SAT essay was always absurd: How many of us could write coherent deep thoughts in 25 minutes or less? (One student Perelman knows blew the test by taking a precious 10 minutes to collect his thoughts.) And when graders are expected to read between 20 and 30 essays every hour — at a $17-per-hour salary — it’s pretty clear they won’t be delving into content, much less grammar.
So Perelman looked into the actual components of good scores, then came up with a cheeky, widely circulated guide for students. Write long, he advised. Use big, fancy words — “myriad” is a winner — and don’t worry about using them correctly. Include a quotation, even if it has nothing to do with the subject at hand. (“My favorite,” he wrote, “is ‘the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.’”) He coached 16 students to retake the SAT, propelling them to better marks.
He won the battle, but he isn’t finished. There’s more to change about testing, and more to fight. Perelman, now a research affiliate at MIT, has set his sights on “robo-scoring” software, under development, that would take humans out of the essay-grading process altogether. (Could machines do any worse? Probably, yes.)
He also wants to knock the five-paragraph essay off its pedestal. You know the format: Topic paragraph, three supporting paragraphs, a neatly wrapped conclusion. It’s a staple of what Perelman calls “McLearning” — easy to evaluate and master, and not especially compatible with actual thinking.
“You need to train students that the universe doesn’t nicely divide,” Perelman said. “Everything is not three different things.”
Perelman isn’t opposed to college-placement essay tests. He just thinks they need to be conceived and graded well. He favors the system the British use for “A-Level” placement exams, in which the essay is the test, and students are asked to communicate actual knowledge.
If you truly understand how to communicate, he knows, almost anything can happen.