I have had several students who were excellent writers, yet were disappointed at not being able to score above a 10 on their essays after taking the SAT multiple times. I have also read numerous reports on the internet about students who had similar experiences.
My advice to all of you – don’t lose sleep over it. Let’s see why:
Two graders read your essay. Each assigns a grade of 1 – 6, so you get a total of 2 – 12 (note that a third reader will be asked to grade your essay if the first two scores are more than 1 point apart).
The graders are presented with a scoring rubric. Let’s have a look at The College Board’s description of what a “5 essay” and a “6 essay” should be:
Score of 6
An essay in this category demonstrates clear and consistent mastery, although it may have a few minor errors. A typical essay:
- Effectively and insightfully develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates outstanding critical thinking, using clearly appropriate examples, reasons, and other evidence to support its position
- Is well organized and clearly focused, demonstrating clear coherence and smooth progression of ideas
- Exhibits skillful use of language, using a varied, accurate, and apt vocabulary
- Demonstrates meaningful variety in sentence structure
- Is free of most errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
Score of 5
An essay in this category demonstrates reasonably consistent mastery, although it will have occasional errors or lapses in quality. A typical essay:
- Effectively develops a point of view on the issue and demonstrates strong critical thinking, generally using appropriate examples, reasons, and other evidence to support its position
- Is well organized and focused, demonstrating coherence and progression of ideas
- Exhibits facility in the use of language, using appropriate vocabulary
- Demonstrates variety in sentence structure
- Is generally free of most errors in grammar, usage, and mechanics
You can see that all of the differences are subjective. Arguably, any well-written essay could be described as belonging to either of the categories.
Many of my students order Question-and-Answer service, and I’ve looked at their essays as they were written. And in my mind, many of the essays that received a score of 10 or 11 were superior to others that received a 12. Other SAT experts have reported similar findings.
I have read about professional authors who have received less-than-perfect scores, despite repeated attempts at the SAT. How is that possible? A score of 6 is not supposed to be reserved for a perfect essay (if one even exists). No, a 6 is supposed to be assigned to a decent first draft written at advanced high school level. That’s a far cry from what a professional author will churn out easily.
The problem is that the graders’ ideas of what constitutes a “6 essay” are subjective. I have read reports from graders who say that they only assign a 6 if an essay is “special.” Fine, but what exactly constitutes “special”?
I have read that some graders are impressed by students who cite classic works of literature. This isn’t surprising; a large percentage of the graders are English teachers. But I’ve read that other graders frown upon cited sources, preferring the “creativity” of personal experience. And since graders are looking for their own idea of “special,” there is simply no way to ensure that you’ll get that perfect grade.
The College Board seems to have recognized this fact; the scoring scales for the first 3 tests in the “Blue Book” (The Official SAT Study Guide, 2nd ed.) reveal that you can achieve a perfect 800 score on the writing section even if you score only a 9 on the essay. However, if you don’t do well on the multiple choice, you can lose 40 or 50 points because your grader doesn’t think your essay was “special.” So much for the claims of pinpoint accuracy of SAT scores.
Another issue may be that graders are reluctant to give many essays a score of 6, given that the other grader of any particular essay may assign it a 4. The College Board keeps track of how often a third reader needs to be called; the consequences for exceeding a certain threshold include mandatory retraining, and eventually, the possibility of being fired.
A few years ago, I signed up for The College Board’s online course. I was able to submit essays for scoring. Since the scores were returned immediately, it was obvious that they were using some form of software to do the grading. I cut-and-pasted the example essay from the Scorebusters course manual, and received a score of 5. Then I wrote some low-level nonsense (including a paragraph about an invented book titled Lizard Man and the Green Meanies by Harold Wheresmyshorts; the plot was as inane as the title implies), and sure enough, reached a 6. I can assure you that the first essay was superior in every way mentioned on the rubric.
I offer a solution to this problem: Let the graders continue to assign grades of 1 – 6, but convert all the 6’s to 5’s before calculating scaled scores (i.e render scores of 5 and 6 identical). Stop penalizing students because of graders’ subjective opinions of what is “special.”