The SAT Essay: Preparing Students for the Test & Tips for Sealing the Deal


National Leave the Office Early Day!As a part of their graduation requirements, every student in Michigan must take the complete SAT, including the essay. This is relatively new for us in the mitten state; previously, our required test was the ACT. As with just about any major change in education, when this first became law, I went through the stages of grief. But now, I’ve moved beyond acceptance and have learned to embrace the newly revised SAT*.

*Ok, “newly revised” requires a bit of perspective. It’s been in place for a couple of years now, but if you haven’t thought much about the SAT since you taught it, it’s changed – a lot.

Now, I’m never going to go bonkers in support of lots of mandatory, standardized testing. But, let’s face it: it’s not going away, so if a test can supply me with reliable data to help inform my instruction, I can deal.

Plus, the SAT is hard, which is one thing that frustrates a lot of people about the shift to this test, but I’d argue that because of its particular type of “hard,” the SAT – especially the essay – is making me improve my teaching.

See, when I say that the SAT is “hard,” part of what I mean is that you can’t really prep for it like you might for other writing tests. That’s because the SAT essay doesn’t just grade kids on how well they can perform with a particular kind of writing. There’s still the kind of icky, unnatural pressure of timed writing, but there’s more to it than that.

A quick look at the rubric will tell you that you’re not dealing with a formulaic response, here. A third of it is devoted to students’ comprehension of the argument they read and another third is devoted to their analysis – their thinking – about the text. That means that a full two thirds of this rubric measures skills that can’t be taught with any kind of formula. And the third that deals with writing? Take a look at the language. It values effectiveness, precision, and variety above structure – all skills for which there simply is no formula.

When we first made the switch to the new SAT essay, my colleagues and I sat down with the rubric and the sample student responses that had been released. We wanted to wrap our heads around this beast to figure out what kids need in order to do well. The discussion was long and at times fraught with emotion, but we were eventually able to agree on a couple of non-negotiables that students would need to be able to succeed on this test. And the really good news is that, to meet these needs, we don’t need to teach to the test or do test-prep; we need to double down on really good instruction.

What kids need:

  • Voluminous, wide-ranging reading
  • Lots of opportunities to think about how writing is crafted

Instructional moves to get them there:

Mentor texts! Instead of using formulas or outlines to teach kids how to write, if we use mentor texts to do that hard work, we’ll make a habit out reading widely – and of thinking about how what we read is crafted.

Before I started using mentor texts, we usually had a reading unit, but then after we transitioned to a writing unit, we didn’t do that much reading. Now, the units are often blended together, and our “writing” units sometimes have more reading in them than the reading units do! That’s because each time we want to look at how to write something, we read a mentor text to find the answer. We read in a wide variety of texts: blogs, newspaper articles, excerpts from books. It’s relatively low-stakes reading in that I’m not giving comprehension quizzes or anything like that, but we are reading all the time. And more than that, we’re thinking about texts like writers, which is exactly what the SAT essay asks us to do. So, when they encounter that prompt, they won’t have to think “how do I write an SAT essay again?” Instead, they’ll just know that it’s asking them to do what they always do: read like a writer.

What kids need:

A range of writing experiences that includes on-demand, timed writing

Instructional moves:

I think we can all agree that the most valuable instruction comes along with the writing process – through wrestling through multiple revisions to a piece. But, there’s a need for balance, too. Our first priority is always our main drafts, but it’s important to give students plenty of low-stakes opportunities to write. I often build these in with flash drafts, and Rebekah wrote about a beautiful way to thoughtfully integrate these as a part of the writing process.

Earlier this week, Hattie also wrote about the important of low-stakes writing, and I couldn’t agree more. Sometimes we take our timed flash drafts through revisions, but sometimes students need permission to set a draft aside or to scrap it altogether without fear of it having an impact on the grade book. The point is that they’re engaging in the experience often and without being conditioned to feel so much pressure when there’s a time limit.

What kids need:

Exposure to test language

Instructional moves:

No matter how valiant our efforts are to make the work of the SAT essay ingrained in everyday instruction, there’s no getting around the fact that tests sometimes seem like they’re written in a different language. Just like anytime our students are learning a new language or are code-switching, we need to give them plenty of support and plenty of low-stakes opportunity to engage. I don’t love giving a whole bunch of practice tests during instructional time, but there are some small moves that I implement in order to help students navigate this testing language more comfortably:

  • Analyze the prompt or question after you’ve already done the work. Once we’ve analyzed a text and students are feeling some success with it, I say something like, “hey did you know that what we just did is something the SAT is going to ask you to do?” Then I display the question as it would appear on the SAT and we pick it apart to identify what it’s asking and how what we just did would help us answer it. It’s a short lesson – 5 minutes tops – but if you do it more than a couple of times, it will help students connect the hard work that they do throughout class to what the test is actually asking them to do.
  • Vary questioning strategies. When I’m designing assignments and quizzes, I vary the structure and format – sometimes of the whole assignment or sometimes even question-by-question. I might take the same skill and ask a question once in the more open-ended, casual way that I’d do so in class. But then, I’ll take that same skill and write a question that mimics the way standardized tests ask questions. Bonus: This is time to exercise my own reading-like-a-writer muscles with sample question banks as mentor texts!

I’m sure someday in the who-knows-how-near-future Michigan will change its laws again and require different testing for our graduation requirements. And when they do, I can deal with it because I’m not preparing my kids for a test, I’m preparing them to read, write, and think through good instruction.

How do you prepare your students for the SAT? In what ways can plain old, good instruction help you prepare your students for other high-stakes tests? Find me on Twitter @megankortlandt

– Megan

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