kitchen table math, the sequel: the writing test and the math test

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

the writing test and the math test

Chemprof (and others, I'm sure) pointed out in Comments that math/science professors value the SAT math test for the same reason I value the SAT writing test: both exams test standard mistakes that college students make.

Btw -- this is something I haven't gotten around to putting inside a post -- when I mention "the main errors student writers make," I'm referring to the Connor and Lunsford list of errors compiled in 1988, which is pretty close to the SAT list.

The Connor-Lunsford list is close to the SAT list except for the fact that Connor and Lunsford did not see ginormous numbers of parallel structure problems in the student papers they read, apparently. I find that hard to fathom. I personally do see ginormous numbers of non-parallel structures in the student writing that comes my way.

Faulty comparison, tested on the SAT, does not make the Connor-Lunsford list, either. (I'm not surprised by that.)

In any event, while musing about chemprof's observation (which I agree with, btw), an essential difference between the two tests, one that I hadn't focused on, suddenly leapt out at me: where SAT Math tests content and procedures students have been seeing in school for years,* SAT Writing tests content students have never seen or even heard tell of unless their Spanish teacher happened to explain what a gerund is in Spanish class.

(I use that example because I asked C. this week whether he knew what a gerund was, and he said he did because he'd learned it in Spanish. I myself had no idea what a gerund was until this semester. Public schools don't teach formal grammar today and haven't taught formal grammar in decades.)

So....when you think about it....isn't the Writing Test a bit of an odd concept?

Students have never been taught grammar, and now they're being tested on grammar?

And why would I be in favor of testing students on content the schools don't teach?

Now I'm thinking: well, maybe I'm not!

Mulling over chemprof's comment, I realize that what I value about the writing test is almost exclusively the test prep kids do for the writing test. The fact of the writing test, the fact that that the writing test exists and students have to take it, gives parents an excuse to insist their kids learn some formal grammar before they graduate high school.

And that's pretty much it; that's what I value about the test.

So, since high scores on writing come entirely from test prep (at least in my experience), what does a high score on the writing test actually mean? Does a high score on the writing section tell us anything about the student's writing?

I don't know the answer to that, and I don't have a good guess.

Basically, I think it's a good thing for a student to recognize a comma splice in an SAT sentence regardless of whether he recognizes a comma splice in his own writing, and effective SAT prep can make that happen. This is a statement of value: I value knowledge of comma splices, and I want my kid to possess it.

* Most of the content anyway. That's a subject for another post: these days the SAT now features counting problems, and students taking traditional algebra classes don't seem to have counting "units" in their courses (although chapters on counting  units are included in traditional texts). Ditto for the algebra 2 material on the SAT if a student has not taken algebra 2.


Anonymous said...

[retry] SAT writing scores aren't all about test prep for everyone - in fact, I find it hard to believe they are anything to do with test prep for anyone who is a native speaker of standard English. My 8yo hasn't been taught what a gerund or a comma splice is, but he can generally answer the sentence-oriented Question of the Day questions because he knows which sentences are and are not possible in his language - in other words, grammar. He can be confused if there are words he doesn't know, but rarely otherwise. Is standard English so different from the effective native language of most SAT-takers?

Glen said...

Well, there are native speakers and there are native speakers. My second grade son lost a point on an English assignment today for writing, "Anna gave my sister and me the book." The teacher crossed out "me" and replaced it with "I", explaining that the proper expression was, "my sister and I."

My son complained to me that, in his opinion, "gave me" was correct, not "gave I", so "gave my sister and me" should have been right. I congratulated him for his correct analysis, but told him not to mention it to his teacher, because nothing good would come of it.

She's a middle class, educated, native English speaker yet she, like most of us, could have benefited from some explicit grammar training. Her students would have benefited, too.

Anonymous said...

More likely, she would have benefited from LESS explicit grammar training! Hypercorrection like this arises principally from half-understood explicit lessons (originally - this one, of course, is so common that it could have been acquired in the wild).

FedUpMom said...

Glen, that one drives me CRAZY! There was a commenter on stophomework the other day who identified herself as a teacher, and then wrote "Unless you've walked in a teacher's shoes, you should give he or she the benefit of the doubt". For real!

Clearly there's no understanding of subject vs. object. I think we've gotten to the point where people think I, he, and she are the correct words and me, him, and her are incorrect words.

Anonymous said...

Hyper(in)corrections, prescriptivists, and zombie grammar "rules" get discussed relatively often (compared to any other specific topic) over at Language Log, a group blog I'd strongly recommend to KTM readers.

Andy Lange

Glen said...

Explicit, prescriptive grammar training doesn't cause bad grammar. Bad grammar by overcorrection is caused by untrained attempts to sound trained. While there may, of course, be limited examples of "a little learning is a dangerous thing" in grammar, the cure is mo' learnin', not no learnin'.

Anonymous said...

Most kids who "hear" proper grammar had parents that spoke to them properly. By ignoring grammar, you leave behind a good number of kids without that benefit, as well as immigrants.

The reality is that so many teachers, including Boomer ones, had very little grammar growing up, and tend to treat it as something you pick up naturally. Or worse, something that is trivial.

When the high school sorting machine hits, your kid's lack of basic grammar skills can really impact his placement. I saw that firsthand at my son's school. Afterschooling was the only thing that saved him from being dropped from freshman honors English. The school did not prepare him, I did.

Even when schools try to teach it, they often drop the ball later through lack of enforcement.

And yes, subjective and objective confusion problems are in the SAT/ACT.


Catherine Johnson said...

Is standard English so different from the effective native language of most SAT-takers?

Yes, it's completely different.

The SAT isn't testing spoken grammar; it's testing the grammar we use in writing.

C. makes no grammatical mistakes in spoken English, but he was not able to recognize comma splices when he first took an SAT writing section.

His final score on the writing section was a 730 thanks to formal tutoring.

Written English is quite different from spoken English. That's one of the reasons why it's so difficult to teach college students to write college papers.

Catherine Johnson said...

More likely, she would have benefited from LESS explicit grammar training! Hypercorrection like this arises principally from half-understood explicit lessons (originally - this one, of course, is so common that it could have been acquired in the wild).

I realize this is a common belief (or appears to be a common belief) amongst the Language Log bloggers, but I flatly disagree.

Grammar has not been taught for ***decades.***

The idea that "prescriptivists" have been teaching "zombie rules" in the schools for lo these many years is a myth.

Public schools stopped teaching grammar "in isolation" in the 1960s; teachers today couldn't teach grammar prescriptively even if they wanted to, which they don't.