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Onto the stage

| Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Standardized tests are inherently limited as tools to measure competency and predict future success. No test has come under more sustained scrutiny in this regard than the SAT, owned and administered by the College Board. In response to claims of racial, economic and cultural bias, questions have been scrubbed with the intent to minimize preferences for students with backgrounds similar to the drafters of the test. Additional efforts have been made to measure critical analytical and communication skills, foremost being the essay section added to the SAT early in this century.

The essay section rewards people who can respond to and fulfill certain limited criteria reflected in a grading rubric applied by persons grading the essays — known as “readers.” Originally the essays could receive a maximum of six points, up to two points for each of three grading areas: reading, analysis and writing. The readers do not measure creativity, originality, impact and memorability, though. Readers with a scant few minutes for each essay perforce must hew to a more easily assessed and defended rubric.

The limits of the SAT essay soon caught the attention of numerous critics, and the Atlantic magazine even ran an article in 2004 titled “Would Shakespeare Get into Swarthmore?” which subjected various essays to the grading rubric applied by actual readers. The authors started with a prompt from the American humorist, Art Linkletter: “The four stages of life are infancy, childhood, adolescence and obsolescence.”

They submitted the following soliloquy, as spoken by Jaques in “As You Like It,” as a responsive essay, from a certain William Shakespeare: “All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players: They have their exits and their entrances; and one man in his time plays many parts, his acts being seven ages. At first the infant, mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms. And then the whining schoolboy with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like snail unwillingly to school. And then the lover, sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier, full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel, seeking the bubble reputation even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice, in fair round belly with good capon lined, with eyes severe and beard of formal cut, full of wise saws and modern instances; and so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon, with spectacles on nose and pouch on side; his youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide for his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice, turning again towards childish treble, pipes and whistles in his sound. Last scene of all, that ends this strange eventful history, is second childishness and mere oblivion, sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.”

The Atlantic also ran an online contest, asking readers to submit essays prompted by Shakespeare’s soliloquy. In the spirit of “we don’t need no stinkin’ rubrics,” yours truly submitted the following (as a 10-line, two-stanza, curtal sonnet): “On life’s stage we are all just players. / We come and go in a show of seven acts: / From drooling babes without woes or cares / To students weighted by books upon their backs. / Next we enter full of love’s afflictions, / Then seek our fame in war’s unending horrors. / We pose and praise and spout our maledictions. / Now aged, we squeak and schlep in outsized drawers. / And as the lights grow dim and curtains tumble, / We end our play sans roar, with just a mumble.”

So, how did we do? Here’s the reader’s evaluation of my entry: “Mr. Ramirez’s decision to write his essay in verse is certainly daring, but his clever and creative rhymes win him no points in this context. In fact, he must be punished for them. There are a few fancy words here, but no clear topic and concluding sentences. It totally lacks examples. And it is way too short; altogether it is only six sentences long. Grade: 2 out of 6.”

Ouch. But at least I had good company; here the reader’s take on Shakespeare: “This essay is poorly organized, with only one paragraph. …. It is riddled with errors in syntax, incomplete sentences being the most noticeable problem. Although his supporting sentences are vivid in their description, they are vague and general, not true examples. And he unfortunately spells ‘honor’ with the extraneous ‘u.’ Grade: 2 out of 6.”

What does it take to meet the SAT essay requirements? Here is the reader’s analysis of one essay that checked all the boxes: “Mr. K__’s essay is well-developed, displays an impressive vocabulary and makes good use of supporting examples. He also demonstrates an understanding of how to use simple, compound, and complex sentences. Grade: 6 out of 6.” This essay was the work of the “Unabomber,” Ted Kaczynski, whose efforts in the 1980s and 1990s resulted in 23 injured victims and three deaths. Kaczynski did get into an institution of some renown, as he currently resides in Colorado’s ADX-Florence supermax prison.

The world may not always value your efforts to be creative and demonstrate skills beyond those that meet a mandated standard of performance. As you move into the working world you may not be fully appreciated by your first (or second or third) employer, but trust in your talents and give people more, and perhaps even something different, than they expect. Do your best and have faith that, as Hamlet observed, “There’s a divinity that shapes our ends, / Rough-hew them how we will—.” Now, take a deep breath, and step onto the stage.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Raymond Ramirez

Ray Ramirez is an attorney practicing, yet never perfecting, law in Texas while waiting patiently for a MacArthur Genius Grant. You may contact him at [email protected]

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