A book by Norbert Elliot, PhD, a professor of English in the department of humanities at New Jersey Institute of Technology (NJIT) has reopened the debate about the value of the SAT’s writing test.
On A Scale: A Social History of Writing Assessment in America (Peter Lang, 2005) looks analytically at the test. It couples observations about current test practices with beneficiaries of those practices. The book is the first historical study of its kind.
“My concern with high stakes admissions tests is that timed writing tests may not serve groups who have been the targets of past discrimination,” said Elliot.
“We are a nation as bound to efficiency in the 21st century as we were in the 19th,” Elliot added. “While renowned researchers from Edward M. White to Hunter M. Breland have demonstrated that timed tests of writing impact students with diverse backgrounds differently, we continue to use these tests because they are economically efficient. We in the college composition community are afraid that a timed writing sample is a potential vehicle for disaster in that it will fail to capture the cognitive and social complexity we commonly associate with the ability to write”.
The text examines into how pedagogical demands of the college composition community are pitted against the demands of the corporate educational research community. “From what I have seen in the history I have documented,” said Elliot, “both these groups pursue writing assessment in frequent isolation from each other, leaving students lost in the middle.”
The story begins with Harvard University’s 1874 requirement that first-year student applicants submit a short composition as part of the admissions process. And it concludes with the College Board’s 2005 requirement for an essay to be submitted as partof the new SAT®: Reasoning Test.
Along the way, readers will find a description of the relationship between the rise of psychological testing in Europe at the end of the 19th century and the attention to writing assessment in America at the beginning of the 20th century. There is an analysis of why and how 20th century world wars shaped writing assessment on the college level.
Interviews include Wayne Camara, vice-president for research and development at the College Board, who takes responsibility for the SAT, Paul Ramsey, a senior vice president at Educational Testing Service (ETS), Jill Burnstein, the co-inventor of the ETS automated essay scoring system, as well as those in the college writing assessment community such as Lee Odell of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and New Jersey’s own Robert Lynch, former chair of the New Jersey Basic Skills Council.