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Best of SATs, worst of SATs

Other editors say

The new essay portion has its good points, but on the other hand ...

Los Angeles Times

Student essay tests can be a good thing or a bad thing. It's a matter of judgment, we think. As the great novel War and Peace says about essay tests ...

Sorry. This kind of thing happens after imagining too many nervous high schoolers sweating through the SAT's newest fear factor, the essay, which debuts this week.

The essay test is a decent, if flawed, instrument for measuring how well students write. At least it will pressure teachers to teach to the test, which in this case would be a good thing. Students need more instruction and practice in writing, as many schools have all but replaced written student reports with multiple-choice tests and other easier-to-grade projects.

We just hope colleges won't take the essay scores too seriously.

The College Board, purveyor of the SAT and a host of other standardized tests, deserves credit for trying to make the essay scoring fair and meaningful. Students read a brief discussion on a question such as whether secrecy is a good thing. They then must write a persuasive essay, taking a position and backing it up with examples. The grading guidelines rightly put low emphasis on spelling and grammar errors ' which test-takers can't check as they would in real life ' and look for organization, sentence flow, vocabulary choice and complexity of thought. Two readers grade every essay, and if their scores are off by more than a point on a scale of — to 6 points, the essay goes to a third supervising reader.

— Despite good intentions, though, the scoring system tends to reward length over economy of thought, the gold-plated word over the simpler one and the global or academic example over the personal. Though it's clear that an essay worth a 5 is superior to one worth a 2, scoring accuracy gets much fuzzier in the 4-to-6 range, even though that might result in a significant difference on the eventual SAT score.

The biggest problem is time. Students have 25 minutes to read and digest the topic, figure out how they feel, think up some good examples, organize their points and then write (by hand!). That fits the needs of a standardized testing schedule, but has little to do with real-life academic work.

The SAT has always had its uses and its inadequacies in predicting how students will fare in college. The redesigned test doesn't change that. Still, it's better to see students practicing the five-paragraph essay than mastering the SAT's now-banished analogies (Yacht is to regatta as mouse is to ...). Thus, finally, and as stated earlier, SAT essay tests can be a good thing. Or a bad thing. It all depends. We think.

Social Security breakdown The Washington Post

The precarious state of President Bush's push to overhaul Social Security raises the prospect of two unwelcome outcomes. The first is that reform will be shelved altogether, and the program's undisputed unaffordability ignored once again. The second is that the unaffordability will be made worse by some cotton-candy additions dressed up as reform. One pushes the problem down the road, when everyone knows it will be more painful to solve. The other pushes the problem down the road and makes it worse in the process. You could think of Example A as the Clinton health care plan; Example B is last year's exorbitant Medicare reform.

The challenge of Social Security is not going to go away on its own. The inexorable demands of the demographic bulge mean that, at some point, the program will not have enough money to pay promised benefits. Addressing that shortfall now will take far less drastic steps than dealing with it in the future; the choice, which neither side wants to acknowledge, is between some pain now and more pain later. Democrats may score a short-term political victory by killing the president's plan, as Republicans did with the Clintons' health care proposal. But if that happens without anything being done to address the underlying solvency questions, the country will be worse off.

The prospect that Social Security will turn into Medicare II is even scarier. The Medicare bill ended up providing a pricey new benefit without doing much to control costs. Now, the drive for Social Security personal accounts at any cost may lead to personal accounts at too high a cost: Rather than having personal accounts as the sweetener to help the medicine of benefit cuts go down, the accounts may be provided without requiring any reduction in benefits. Digging the hole deeper would be even more irresponsible than ignoring it.

The Social Security discussion is heading in the wrong direction because it is starting from the wrong principle. The fundamental questions that Congress and the administration ought to be tackling are, first, how to put the program on a sound footing, and second, how to do so while protecting those in greatest need. The administration is dangling the prospect of personal accounts without advancing a proposal to achieve solvency. The Democrats are closing their eyes and sticking their fingers in their ears. Neither approach will get us very far.