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Are Your Kids Ready for the New SAT Essay?

You gotta pity the Class of 2017. This spring, juniors will be hit with a triple-whammy – the timed essay of the EAP (it’s a California thing), Common Core SBAC testing, and the premiere of the new SAT in March. Yeah, these kids will be at the forefront of some high-stakes testing and you know what they say about life on the cutting edge – it often makes you bleed.

I’ve talked in the past about SBAC prep and my department’s EAP scores are strong, but the SAT? Oh that new SAT, the source of so much stress. One of my freshmen actually took the SAT earlier this month because her parents wanted a baseline score cemented using the current exam. It’s not that the redesigned SAT arriving this spring is harder than the older SAT; it’s just that the test isn’t yet known. And that causes anxiety. Until the first few rounds of students’ scores are released, we won’t really know the impact of the changes on student performance.

Always the optimist, I choose to see some good news in all of these changes. First, students will no longer be dinged a quarter-point for every wrong answer. It used to be better to leave an answer blank than to take a guess when uncertain. As of March 2016, that wrong answer penalty disappears, so kids should try and answer every question. Second, the most archaic vocabulary is being boiled away. I mean, have you seen some of the words on the current test? Perfidious? Adumbrate? Legerdemain? Sheesh. Finally, the essay has been completely overhauled to better reflect what students will actually need to be able to do in college – understand how a writer builds an argument. Though this essay is more challenging, it can be mastered by equipping teens with an understanding of the basic tools of rhetoric and teaching them to thoughtfully apply a writing formula.

What’s Changed in the SAT Essay?

Pretty much everything. Kids will have more time (50 min. vs. 25 min.), they’ll read a longer argument essay from a published author, and they’ll write an analysis essay explaining how the author uses specific rhetorical devices to support his/her stance. Previously, students read a brief description of someone’s opinion, decided whether they agreed/disagreed, and then supported their position with concrete examples from their lives and their studies. In the new SAT, the College Board doesn’t care about students’ opinions. Instead, the task is all about deconstructing someone else’s argument.

This new analysis essay is actually better because it focuses on a skill set folks will need not only in college, but also in adult life. Our career and military-bound students, who’ll never have to face the SAT beast armed only with a fistful of pencils, should also be able to recognize and comment upon the techniques that people use to try to persuade them.

So I recently got busy doin’ what I do – building the tools my kids need to get this job done. I’ll start with a lecture explaining the changes to the essay and a blueprint for students to follow. Then, I’ve planned three full-class lessons where students will dig into published argument essays on high-interest modern topics (intestinal worms, anyone?) and follow guiding questions to help them discover the architecture behind each piece of writing. My students already know a bit about Aristotle’s Tools of Rhetoric, but they need more examples of those elements in action. The argument essays were chosen because they’ll help kids spot and intelligently think about:
Quality of statistical information presented
Quality of sources cited by the author
Connotative qualities of specific word choices
Use of logical reasoning
Use of emotional appeals
Use of juxtaposition
Use of allusion to other famous works
Use of rhetorical questions to engage the reader
Use of figurative language
Author’s tone
Structure of an argument (presenting evidence from weakest to strongest)

I’m still not sure if I’ll use these as one-per-month assignments this spring or stitch them into a two-week rhetoric extravaganza with my Steve Jobs materials and fun Logical Fallacies lecture, but either way my students won’t be left quaking and shaking by the thought of this essay. This solid foundation will keep ‘em standing strong.

Finally, as a small reward for making it all the way to the end of a blog post about SAT essay writing (ugh!), here’s a FREE copy of my SAT-style rubric based on the new 4-3-2-1 scale. Instead of grading holistically, the College Board will now assess three separate areas of a student’s work – reading, analysis, and writing. Two readers score every paper, so a top score on an essay will soon look like: 8-8-8. You can read more about the scoring changes here. Also, the College Board has released two prompts and student samples, which you can check out here. My items are modeled after the College Board guidelines, but built on different source material.

Teach on, everyone!

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