Change is the only constant in parenting. It’s the same for high stakes testing, too. That makes parenting a child through the SATs an additional parenting challenge.
If you’re not familiar with the most recent format, it’s changed a great deal since most of us were teens. College Board removed the analogies. They recentered the scores multiple times (for a while there, my 1360 was pretty lame compared the 2000+ results I was seeing). They added the mandatory essay in 2005, then relegated it to optional in the spring of 2016.
Why all the changes? Survival, quite frankly.
Beginning in the mid 90s, College Board sat on the receiving end of some pretty negative feedback. After admitting students with high SAT scores and poor literacy skills, the University of California called the test’s efficacy into question. Soon after, several other universities criticized the test. College Board got nervous, then overhauled the SAT to stem an approaching tide of desertion.
It seems to have worked, as College Board has staved off its demise for the time being. High stakes testing remains a benchmark in modern education. It’s a requirement even for homeschoolers, so the majority of high school age students will take it and opt to sit for the essay.
The original essay iteration required students to read a quotation, form an opinion, and support that opinion with specific examples. I advised students to keep a library of applicable literary works and historical events in their back pockets, ready to be used as evidence at a moment’s notice.
Eleven years later, that strategy no longer works.
Students must now read a passage, analyze the author’s technique, and discuss the effectiveness of the author’s argument. The standard prompt looks like this, with a passage in between the first and last sections:
As you read the passage below, consider how Paul Bogard uses
- evidence, such as facts or examples, to support claims.
- reasoning to develop ideas and to connect claims and evidence.
- stylistic or persuasive elements, such as word choice or appeals to emotion, to add power to the ideas expressed.
[text from Paul Bogard’s essay, “Let There Be Dark” (Los Angeles Times, 12/2/12)]
Write an essay in which you explain how Paul Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience that natural darkness should be preserved. In your essay, analyze how Bogard uses one or more of the features in the directions that precede the passage (or features of your own choice) to strengthen the logic and persuasiveness of his argument. Be sure that your analysis focuses on the most relevant features of the passage.
Your essay should not explain whether you agree with Bogard’s claims, but rather explain how Bogard builds an argument to persuade his audience.
To ace the essay, a student needs solid critical reading skills and expert knowledge of evidence, reasoning, and persuasive elements in a text.
A student must be able to identify these elements through close reading, then explain their effectiveness in persuading the reader. This is not a difficult task for a student with a working vocabulary in rhetoric and composition. So here’s a rhetoric and comp primer, with suggestions for direct discussion of textual elements.
Evidence is anything concrete that can support an assertion. This includes:
- Reliance on expert authority, when an author applies information from an expert in a related field (for instance, in a discussion on the ethics of Edward Snowden’s actions, an author might consult the opinion of an NSA official or CIA operative).
- Textual support, whether it be a quotation from another work or a portion of an interview with a witness.
- Comparisons, when an author relates one situation to another to shed light on the problem at hand (comparing a billionaire’s donation to medical research to a bandaid on a gaping wound).
- Anecdotes, the use of short vignettes to relay information (such as including a short tale displaying a public figure’s approachability)
- Facts, which are concepts widely accepted as truth (for instance, that the ocean is saline, that some rivers are brackish, and that still other rivers are fresh)
- Statistics, such as results from polls or research studies
Logical reasoning is the way an author connects ideas, guiding the reader to a desired conclusion. Logical reasoning can be either
- Inductive, meaning that an author begins with a narrow premise (bees have been classified as an endangered species) and extends outward to a broader conclusion (the world’s ecosystems are at risk)
- Deductive, meaning that an author begins with a broader premise (Shakespeare’s work transcends time and culture) and moves toward a specific conclusion (that Shakespeare’s tragedies speak volumes about the human condition)
Rhetorical devices stem from ancient Greek philosophy and describe the way in which an author appeals to his audience. There are three:
- Ethos, when an author establishes his or her credibility (“In my twenty years as a certified educator…..”)
- Pathos, when an author appeals to the audience’s emotions through charged language or vignettes (such as a vivid description of the life of a refugee child)
- Logos, when an author uses logic to advance her point (“While neither major party choice for office is appealing, someone must be the president of the United States. Therefore, we have two choices: to vote for the candidate which is least distasteful in light of the long game, or sit out the election and await what comes.)
Once the student identifies these items through close reading, I recommend the following:
- Restate the author’s claim in your own words
- Determine which elements support that claim most effectively. Categorize or group them according to any similarities (do some appeal to the emotions more than others? Are some elements integral in building a logical argument, while others function differently?)
- Make a brief, bullet-type outline that lays out the general organization of your discussion
- Include specific examples from the text in your body paragraphs, being sure to directly address the language in the quotation and its role in proving the author’s point
What’s next, now that we’ve laid out the technical details? Practice. Because while it’s one thing to know the lexicon, it’s another matter entirely to apply it.
SAT essay hopefuls should read, annotate, and respond to at least one opinion piece a week.
This means checking out the editorial sections of newspapers and magazines for the purpose of reading and responding. Consistent practice leads to better reading and writing skills: students can better identify stylistic and rhetorical elements while gradually adapting those hallmarks (as well as patterns of organization and sentence structure) for their own writing.
College Board may keep changing their standards of evaluation, but one thing’s for sure: the SAT isn’t going anywhere. It’s up to our kids to roll with the punches.
The least we can do is get them a decent set of boxing gloves.