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Scarlet Letter, Florence Nightengale, the Tsunami

Lynn Harris on the new writing section of the SAT test:

An SAT coach based in Rochester, N.Y., who works for one of the major test-prep outfits and didn’t want to be named, recently took the new writing test himself to see what he was up against. “I was like, OK, I know all about ‘The Scarlet Letter,’ I know all about Florence Nightingale, I know all about the tsunami,” he says. “The essay question was something like, Does work give life meaning? So, Florence Nightingale, her work was to heal people — that gives life meaning. The tsunami, the rescue efforts showed the meaning of volunteer work. ‘The Scarlet Letter’ — I’m sure there was some work in there somewhere … OK, the work of retribution gave Hester Prynne’s life meaning. If you have examples of anything, you can write any essay,” he says. “And you can always use Florence Nightingale, no matter what.”

My response (at least to the study that there is a correlation between high scores and word count): Verbal fluency goes a long way in compensating for logical and grammatical deficiencies. That is true in oral as well as written expressions. In college, one of the hardest things is just getting students to write enough. It is downright painful for teachers to read most of their papers, not because they are illogical or stupid, but because students at that age don’t have a rapid reserve of experiences and thoughts to draw upon. They are good at engaging with ideas, but not through written expression. I frequently held class debates and was always amazed at how even the most taciturn of students can jump in to explain why pizza is more important than TV.

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