My 16-year-old son took the SAT exam this morning. This is the second time he’s taken it—the first time was 4½ years ago, at the end of 6th grade, for a talent search. At that time, he got excellent scores on the reading and math, but a rather poor score on the writing (worst possible score on the essay). We were not worried about the essay score then, since he had never been taught to write an essay, but his writer’s block go worse over the years, leading eventually to our home schooling him (see School decisions, part 2). We’ve been getting him weekly sessions with a writing therapist, trying to improve his ability to overcome his inner censor and write more freely. He’s always written well, when he has been able to produce output, but writing to a deadline has always been very difficult for him and timed writing nearly impossible.
It seems that the writing therapy paid off on today’s exam. The essay prompt he was given (which he did not tell us, as he takes the required secrecy of the exams very seriously) was very similar to one he’d been given in a practice session with his writing therapist recently, so he could take the examples he had previously written about and reuse them for this new prompt. I understand that this approach of reusing previously crafted arguments is very common among high-school debaters and more common than it should be in college essays. I have some evidence for the essay reuse in college—I reviewed Phi Beta Kappa candidates one year and recommended rejecting one who had used essentially the same final paper in three different classes. It may have been a fine essay, but reusing it was intellectual laziness that should not characterize Phi Beta Kappa honorees. (This was some time ago—the more recent transcripts have only grades and not narrative evaluations that include the topics of final papers, so this sort of intellectual laziness is harder to detect now.)
I am a little bothered by how much my son benefited from the coaching by his writing therapist. He clearly needed the extra help in getting past his writer’s block, and it seems to be helping in his other courses, letting his writing show more of what he is capable of, so I’m not at all sorry we are buying him the therapy. But I am concerned that the SAT essay is so coachable—that makes it much less useful as an exam, since it will detect ability to pay for coaching as much as it will detect ability and achievement. I would have been happy if his therapy made it possible for him to write an essay on an unfamiliar prompt despite the time pressure—having the therapy make the prompts familiar seems too much like teaching to the test.
Given the luck he had on getting a prompt close to something he had already thought about, this may be the last time he takes the SAT—we’ll know in a few weeks when we get the scores. Given that home-school GPAs are rather uninterpretable, we’re going to have to rely on SAT scores (and other standard test scores) to show his abilities to college admissions offices. We don’t need to show a 2400, but we do want to see a substantial improvement since 6th grade, when his total was 2050. I’d like to see something above 2210 (top 1%ile), and if it weren’t for his writer’s block, I think a 2350 would be more representative of his abilities.
Assuming that the SAT is done with, his writing therapy can now focus on other forms of writing he needs to master—ones more like writing he will do in college and beyond.