Q&A With A Former SAT Essay Scorer

SAT Prep Groupba-ay602_previe_g_20120428004636 shares popular questions and answers on SAT essay scoring.  English teacher and former Pearson scorer for the SAT essays has done a Q&A with high school students and parents throughout the world.  Although she has released proof of her scoring, she has not released any other identifiable information incase she desire to score the SAT again.  SAT Prep Group thought we’d do a highlight of frequently asked questions and answers for our students to inform you on the essay scoring process and what to expect.

Have additional questions? Leave us a blog comment.  We’ll be happy to answer any of your SAT essay questions.

Q:  Why do people score what they do and what are scorers looking for?

A:  We’re given a pretty fair amount of training on how to score and what to look for.  Honestly, if you look at the Essay Scoring Framework, it’s pretty comprehensive.  That’s a rather broad quesion, so I’m not entirely sure what else to answer.

Q:  Has anyone ever stapled money inside a test booklet that you received?  If someone has, did you give them the max credit?

A:  SAT essays are scanned, and [sent to the scorer to] read on a computer.  So, no.

Q:  I lied a lot in my essay, did you notice?

A:  Whether or not we notice is irrelevant, since we’re not allowed to score on correctness of content.

Q:  What was the most memorable thing you’ve read/happened during grading?

A:  Honestly, nothing sticks out.  We had to score approximately 20-30 essays an hour to keep the pace they wanted us to, and I did my scoring after a full day of teaching high school English, so generally I was pretty cross-eyed by the time I was through.

Q:  Has there been [an essay] you had to drop reading because of the quality?

A:  Nope.  In fact, those are easier to score, since it’s not like my day job teaching HS English where I have to give meaningful feedback on each essay.  The hardest ones were the 3/4 and 4/5 [scored essays].  1s, 2s, and 6s were pretty easy to spot from a mile away.

Incidently, not correcting your “has” is making me twitch.  So I’ll just nudge you and remind you that it should be “Have there been…”

Q:  How do you determine plagiarism?  Since the essays are hand-written I can’t see an automated system working very well.

A:  Since testing is conducted in a controlled environment and the questions aren’t known ahead of time, it’s pretty difficult to plagiarize.  That said, there is a process for flagging suspected plagiarism.  In my year of scoring, I don’t think I ever used this process.

Q:  Do you score essays better when they adhere to the standard introduction (with a thesis sentence), body, body, body, conclusion format? 

A:  I don’t give essays any better or worse a score for conforming to the standard “five paragraph essay” format than ones that don’t.  That said, those are generally the ones in which students are able to be the most organized in the 30 minutes that they get to write the essay.  As long as I know the argument you’re trying to make, I’m not going to dock you for having a thesis paragraph post-introduction.  But in a short essay like that, that’s much more difficult to effectively pull off than it would be in, say, a longer research paper.

I do have to say that, from a scorer’s standpoint, the standard five-paragraph format is MUCH easier to score.  But it’s also hideously boring, repetitive, and often devoid of creativity.  I think it has its place, and the SAT essay is a good place for that.  But I’ve seen a lot of essays work that didn’t adhere to that.

Q:  Do you ever give essays “extra points” for being interesting or clever?  Would you ever think, “Well there are a lot of grammar mistakes in this one, but it has the most interesting ideas and I like the writing style, so I’ll go easy on it?”

A:  It’s not creative writing, it’s argumentative writing.  There’s a big difference.  I wouldn’t necessarily go easy on it, but if it had a well-presented original take on the same question I’ve read 200 other essays on, you bet I’d take notice and take that into consideration for a final score.

Q:  How thorougly did you read through the essays?

A:  We have to average 2-3 minutes per essay with our scoring time, or the system actually flags us and makes us redo some of our training.  Generally in that time, I’d read each essay twice.  Sometimes three times, depending on the essay.

I read the whole thing [at least] once.  I don’t always reread every single word, but I go back to key points and look at those more closely, and look to follow a train of thought through a paper.

Q:  In your opinion, what should a top essay have?  I’ve heard to put at least one pop culture reference and one historical reference.

A:  [Have a] strong argument, at least three well-thought-out reasons supporting that argument; strong, relevant, specific examples for each reason, and a thorough analysis of the examples in relation to your reasons and core argument will get you to at least a 5.  I’ve never really honestly paid much attention to pop culture or historical references, but I will say that if someone only gives examples from their personal life, that to me is a MUCH weaker essay.  I want them to look back at all of what they’ve learned and apply that, even if they remember something incorrectly (for example, saying that George Washington freed the slaves).  At least there’s an attempt there to apply knowledge they’ve learned.

The 6th point comes through style — use of language, diction, syntax, vocabulary.  Like I said above, a 6 essay is pretty easy to identify — they almost jump off the page at you most of the time.  It’s the 3s/4s and 4s/5s that will kill you.  Is it a 3 or a 4?  Is it a 4 or a 5?

Q:  How often is it that you get [handwriting that is] completely illegible or incoherent?

A:  I’ve always had a hard time reading cursive.  Compounding the legibility problems were the fact that the essays were all written in wooden pencil and scanned into a computer for us to read online.

However, after years of teaching high school English, I’m pretty used to the axe murdered handwriting, so for the most part, it didn’t faze me.  There was a process by which we could report illegibile essays, but I think I may have had to use that once, if that.

That said, if an essay had really, really poor handwirting, I’d tend to skim it more quickly than I might otherwise have, and an essay that has been quickly skimmed likely wouldn’t have received as high a score from me as one that was easily legible and allowed me to quickly skip back to and review and ponder the student’s key points and writing style.

Moral of the story:  use decent penmanship on those essays, people.  It won’t take you THAT much longer.  Outline on another page first if you must.  Having taken a number of AP tests and SAT subject tests when I was in high school, I remember the pressure of timed tests.  But the more esasily the scorer can read your writing, the better they will be able to evaluate it.

Q:  How far in an essay can you get before you know it is a horribly written one?  Do you stop reading and just give it a bad grade if you can tell?

A:  Nope, I always read the entire essay.  Generally at least twice.  But within the first two paragraphs, I can usually tell what the final score is going to be, just based on the quality of the argument and writing ability in those first two paragraphs.  It’s the poorly-written ones that are sometiems my favorite because they’re MUCH easier to score than the average-to-high-average ones.

Q:  How did you become an SAT scorer?

A:  I saw an ad in a flyer at a summer conference I went to, went home and filled out an online application.  This was mid-August.  The training started in September and the first test administration that I scored for was in October.

Q:  You said you have to disregard what is truth or valid and cannot score on that.  So if I were to bring up an event where “Anyone” assassinated some dude back in the fifties and went through his motive for doing it, would you have to treat it as true and vaild?

A:  Yep.  If a student says that George Washington freed the slaves, we aren’t allowed to mark down for that.

Q:  I have taken SAT courses in China and the actual test twice.  I have the feeling that getting a good score requires a very formulaic approach and frankly, that’s one of the reasons I dislike the SAT so much.  Any thoughts on this?

A:  I agree with you — it’s very much geared toward a five-paragraph essay.  As an English teacher, I abhor the five-paragraph essay past about the 9th grade.  But, unfortuantely, it does have its place, and a 30-minute timed essay is going to be fairly formulaic just because of the task assigned, the requirements, and the time allotted in which to complete it.

Q:  I’m an SAT tutor, and we teach our students to sort of shift the given topic toward one of a few essays they’ve already practiced – one on heroes, one on creativity, one on progress/technology, and one on individual morals. (Most essay topics seem to fall into one of these categories, anyway.) Would you give a lower score to an essay like this that sort of steered the question in a slightly different direction?

A:  Not necessarily, as long as they answered the original question. Sometimes it’s obvious that students are trying to do this though, and then yeah, it will affect them negatively. Students will try to shoehorn things in for the purpose of having them in there, and it sticks out like a sore thumb.

Q:  Do you feel HS English classes are doing enough grammar help for this kind of essay?

A: It depends on the high school. Where I went to high school (upper middle-class area), yes. Where I used to teach, no. Where I teach now, really no (although I now teach at a school for at-risk kids, so we’re just thrilled when they graduate, for the most part.)

That said, I don’t think high school English classes SHOULD be focusing on this type of essay. It’s a formulaic, 30-minute, single-draft essay. One of my biggest frustrations, honestly, is HAVING to focus on essays like this, instead of focusing on the drafting and revision process. I’ve worked with FAR too many students who feel like they’re done after the first draft.

Q:  I once read that bigger words literally score higher on the SAT — as in, more syllables, more points. Are there any weird grammar/syntax things like this that graders look for?

A:  Not specifically, but a stronger vocabulary is one major thing that separates a 6 from a 5. As long as the words are use correctly and appropriately, though. Randomly throwing in ANTIDISESTABLISHMENTARIANISM isn’t going to win you any points.

Q:  What types of people get the best scores?

A:  There are no names or other identifying marks on the essays we receive.

Q:  I think a lot of the trouble with the SAT essays is that the difference between earning a 4/5 and a 6 is not -I would argue- how well you can write, but instead how well you understand what the graders are looking for:

  • a clear position
  • three non-personal-anecdotes that support it (literary + history + pop culture is a good way to role)
  • a solid closer

Do that with proper grammar in the allotted time and you’re at a 6.

A lot of “good” writers end up at sub-6 ratings because it’s hard for them to throw away their idea of what a “good” essay is and instead focus on delivering what the graders want.

A: More or less. I don’t mind students using personal anecdotes, and I’m not going to mark them down specifically for that, but the problem is that when they go with personal anecdotes, (a) they tend to not be very strong or relevant, and (b) they immediately slip into a more informal writing style.

Honestly, I don’t even always look at closers/conclusions. A 6 essay can still be a 6 essay without a conclusion. I just want to see an argument with at least three solid reasons (you can get away with two, but your support better be flawless) that is well-supported with examples and comprehensive analysis.


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Let us know how you feel about the SAT essay?  Was this article helpful? 


*This Q&A consists of highlights from an Ask me Anything (/r/IAmA) via Reddit.  To view the full thread of questions and answers, click here.

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