Too many parents and students can remember a bad experience from school where they felt work was unfairly evaluated. If different teachers look for different things, it seems improbably for a standardized system to grade things like the SAT essay section. Many wonder how SAT essays are graded and how the process could be objective.
SAT Essay Reader Qualifications
In 2005 I was selected as one of the first graders for the essay section when it was introduced on the March SAT. To qualify as a reader one must:
- Hold a bachelor’s degree or higher
- Have taught a high school or college course with writing
- Taught for at least three years
- Not receive payment for SAT preparation from a test prep company or individual students in the past 12 months.
- Satisfy technical and security requirements for grading online.
To be considered or to learn more, visit the College Board’s Professional site.
Grading Standards For SAT Essays
Once approved as an SAT reader, I entered into a process of training and evaluation designed to teach readers what to look for and how SAT essays are graded. Teachers who have graded writing for AP exams or other standardized tests will understand that scores are NOT subjective.
The SAT essay scoring key is available online. It clearly states what readers are looking for and what standards must be met to score anywhere from a 1 to a 6. I had a laminated copy of the grading scale taped to my computer monitor. It was the final word on scoring.
To insure essays are graded according to standards, all readers must successfully complete hours of training and pass multiple grading tests. Every times I logged in to read essays, I had to pass a quiz that required me to accurately score a set of sample essays. Additionally, as I was scoring, my accuracy was tracked. Personally, I found it very stressful for a part-time job that left me reading student drafts for hours on end.
Pearsons Educational Measurement and College Board are concerned with how SAT essays are graded and work to insure consistent and accurate evaluations.
Grading Process For SAT Essays
Beyond issues of what is graded, there are issues of how SAT essays are graded logistically. Once answer documents are sent back, each essay is electronically scanned into the system.
Readers log-in to grade from their own computers and evaluate essays “on screen.” It is different from my days as a teacher where I would sit down with a composition, mark errors, and makes notes before assigning a grade. For the SAT essays I would spend a minute or two reading the essay and comparing it to the scoring rubric. Then I would enter one numerical score—no comments or explanation needed.
Two readers will score each student’s essay. If the two scores differ by more than a point, a supervisor will evaluate and correct the scoring.
How SAT Essays Are Graded: Conclusion
While no system is perfect, I believe how SAT essays are graded is generally a fair and accurate process. Yes, readers will have off days. Yes, some graders may be turkeys looking to cut corners, but most readers are trying very hard to provide scores that follow grading guidelines.
You may also want to read about one of the most controversial SAT essay topics here.
It's 17-19 days after your SAT test date, so you log into the CollegeBoard website, eager to see how you did. You look at your essay score and see...“9.”
You check for more detail in your score report and see that Grader 1 gave you a 5, Grader 2 gave you a 4...and that's it.
So how are SAT essays graded, and how can you use this information to your advantage? Read on to find out!
feature image credit: Iffy explains it all by Quinn Dombrowski, used under CC BY-SA 2.0/Cropped and resized from original.
A Quick Look Into SAT Essay Grading
The first thing you do when you sit down to take the SAT is the 25-minute essay section. Once you write your essay (as well as the rest of the test), though, what happens to it?
Your essay is scanned and uploaded to an essay grading interface and graders then grade it. SAT essays are currently graded on a scale of 1-6 by two graders, giving you a total essay score out of 12. This score out of 12, along with your raw score on the SAT Writing multiple-choice questions, is factored into your total SAT Writing score. If the two graders give you scores more than 1 point apart (i.e. if one grader gives your essay a 2 and another gives your essay a 4), a third essay grader will be brought in to resolve the issue.
Your SAT essay scores are based on each essay grader’s impression of your essay as a whole, which is why the SAT essay is said to be graded "holistically." You don’t get a certain number of points taken off for grammar mistakes or for organizational issues, as you might on a normal school essay. In fact, graders are trained to ignore minor errors in grammar, sentence structure, and so on.
Important note: In March 2016, the SAT essay will be changing in format and grading structure, so some of this information may not be accurate for that test. Check back for updates!
SAT Essay Scoring: Official Policy
How are graders supposed to grade? I've copied the official policy from the CollegeBoard below:
“The SAT Scoring Guide expresses the criteria readers use to evaluate and score the student essays. The guide is structured on a six-point scale. Since the SAT essay is scored holistically, readers are trained to use the SAT Scoring Guide in conjunction with anchor papers, which have been scored by consensus as representative examples. The language of the Scoring Guide provides a consistent and coherent framework for differentiating between score points, without defining specific traits or types of essays that define each score point.”
What's the SAT Scoring Guide? While I've written another article that goes into detail about the SAT essay grading rubric, I'll give a quick rundown of its main points here:
Point of View, Logic, and Support
You must: Have a clear opinion on the prompt (a thesis).
Make sure you clearly answer the essay prompt, both in your introduction with a thesis statement and over the course of your essay. For example, take the essay prompt were "Are important discoveries the result of focusing on one subject?" Your thesis (and your essay) should clearly answer this question, preferably with a "yes" or "no" (SAT essays that try to answer "sort of yes, sort of no" tend to be weaker, since you only have 25 minutes to write your essay).
You must: Use specific examples to support your point.
You can't just say "my point of view is correct because it is" and be done. Instead, you need to use specific examples from history, literature, pop culture/current events, or your own life to support your thesis.
You must: Explain these specific examples in a way that supports your thesis.
It's also not enough to just write your thesis and then describe a specific example - you also need to explain why that example supports your thesis.
Organization and Focus
You must: Keep your essay organized.
This means sticking to a clear essay structure (with an introduction, body paragraphs for each example, and a conclusion) as well as making sure your thoughts are organized within each paragraph.
Vocabulary and Word Choice
In order to score highly, you must: Use a wide variety of vocabulary correctly.
It's good to use advanced vocabulary, but only if you're using the words correctly. You can get away with a few errors, but if your word choice starts to seriously affect the meaning of your sentences, your essay score may drop.
In order to score highly, you must: Use a variety of sentence structures.
As I've said in other articles, this is the area that I struggle the most with under time pressure. As long as you don't start multiple sentences in a row with the same word (oops) or write sentences that all have the same underlying structure (e.g. "Gandhi was a great leader. India was in trouble. The world was watching."), however, you should be fine.
You must: Use standard written English grammar.
Again, it's all right to make minor errors in grammar and punctuation in your essay - graders are trained to overlook minor issues. If your essay has consistent issues with grammar that make it difficult to understand your reasoning, however, this will affect your essay score.
SAT Essay Grading in Practice
Essay graders don’t grade based on how correct your statements are. This means that you can write things like "My friend was killed by a polar bear because he didn't go to the instructional course about how to deal with bear attacks" or "The Scopes Monkey Trial ended with Scopes being executed for his belief in evolution" and the graders will have to take it as true.
My reaction when I first learned this: WHAT. How can that be true?! So I investigated further and found the reasons that lie behind this rule.
Because SAT essay scorers don’t have time to fact check each and every fact in each and every essay, they must take everything you write in your essay as true. Plus, the stated purpose of the SAT essay assignment is to "show how effectively you can develop and express ideas" in 25 minutes. The CollegeBoard understands that under the time pressure of a 25-minute essay students will sometimes write things like "World War I took place in the early 1800s" (instead of "the early 1900s"). As long as your statements logically support your thesis, you're in the clear (although if you write things that don’t make sense that undermine your main point, your essay grade will suffer).
Second, while there’s nothing in the publicly available official guidelines that say how long each grader has to grade, interviews with and articles by former SAT essay graders have provided further information about the grading process: if an essay scorer takes longer than 2-3 minutes to grade each essay, she has to be "retrained." This process is annoying, as the grader has to grade a series of pre-graded essays and make sure she's within a point of the grade before she can get back to grading actual student essays.
Graders may also be forced to retrain if they run into a prescored essay that's been thrown in among the student essays and don't score it within one point of the score. To avoid all of this retraining, graders will sometimes score in the middle of a range to stay on the safe side. For example, if an essay is at least a 4, a grader might score it a 5 because that grade is within one point of a 6 OR a 4 (and might be right on target with a 5).
Interior of a beet sugar factory showing centrifuges (CHS-2496) by Ashley Van Haeften, used under CC BY 2.0/Cropped from original.
"These score results show the need for retraining. Let us return Grader 18927 to the vat."
What Does This Mean for Your SAT Essay?
Now that you know a little more about the official SAT essay grading policies and the reality of SAT essay grading, how can you use this information to write higher-scoring essays?
Don’t hide your thesis. Graders spend 2-3 minutes per essay or else face a retraining penalty. They will not be happy if they have to hunt all over to find your point of view, so state your thesis clearly in your introduction.
Be organized. Again, because the grader is spending a short amount of time on your essay, you want to make it easier for her to follow your logic.
You can make a few mistakes. As long as errors in your grammar, punctuation, and spelling don’t significantly affect the readability of your essay, your essay's graders won’t penalize you for it. Similarly, as long as the facts you use in your essay logically support your thesis, it doesn't matter if they're actually true or not. For instance, you could completely change the plot of a novel like George Orwell's Animal Farm, and as long as the changes you've made make logical sense, the graders must not penalize you for it.
Curious about what standards SAT essay scorers are using to grade your essay? Go into more detail on this topic with my article on the SAT Grading Rubric.
Now that you know how your essay is scored, find out what's a good SAT essay score [coming soon] and compare it to the average SAT essay score [also coming soon!].
Get more insights on the SAT essay with our strategies for the SAT essay, based on stories of former SAT essay graders.
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