The Return of Grammar 

The revisions to the SAT have gotten attention because of the new essay portion. But the real news lies elsewhere.

As an SAT tutor, I am constantly trying to explain why answer choice (A) is plainly, if subtly, superior to answer choice (C). My patience is about to be tested once again.

"But 'without barely' sounds fine to me."

I sigh. This student is a ball-breaker. She battles every missed answer, either demanding that the "correct" answer be recognized as inferior to her own, or crying, with the anguish of the perennially put-upon, that she "totally meant to put that!"

I pounce on her latest challenge with relish. "It doesn't matter that it sounds fine to you. It is wrong. Period. What should it be?"

She is forced to concede that, as I have somewhat coercively taught her, "without barely" is a double negative, just like "can't hardly," "don't want no," "not scarcely," and the baneful "ain't no."

If you are older than seventeen, and one of the many who still has the occasional SAT nightmare, you won't recall any grammar questions in said nightmares — just plain old math and verbal questions. But now this venerable pair has a new compatriot called writing, revising the total possible score to 2,400 points instead of 1,600. The writing section consists of grammar multiple choice questions and an essay.

The changes kicked up quite a storm when they were rolled out last year. All anyone seemed to care about was the essay, which threatened to "squeeze self-expression out of the classroom" (The New York Times) and "reward students who ramble on demand" (The Oregonian). The National Council of Teachers even declared that the timed essay "sends troubling messages about writing." Much of the criticism was valid. I hate seeing bright, thoughtful students try and fail to squish their insights into such a measly format. On the other hand, timed essay questions are a mainstay of college blue-book exams, so they may as well get used to it.

But behind the flurry of opinion about the essay, however, a quiet revolution is under way. After decades as a fifth-grade afterthought, grammar has finally made it to the big leagues. And few commentators seem to realize that grammar multiple choice questions actually comprise 70 percent of the 800 new points. My students are universally surprised to hear that the dreaded essay they've heard so much about is worth less than 10 percent of their total score.

This is cause for celebration. The world of standardized testing is murky, open to accusations of bias and subjectivity, particularly on the verbal side. But grammar is English done math-style. It's standardized. It's fair to test. No determining which answer is "more true." "There's a right and a wrong answer," says Bishop O'Dowd junior Eileen Clapp of Oakland.

Students find solace in this simplicity. After the initial grumbling, they inevitably warm to the idea that, armed with the relevant rule, they will know the answer. "It's sort of mechanical," says Evan Schneider of Piedmont, a junior at College Preparatory School.

In the stressful testing environment, this kind of certainty has a calming effect. "I didn't get nervous at all on the grammar section," said Jenny Brown, a junior at Miramonte High in Orinda, who took the test April 1, and admitted that she actually found the grammar questions fun.

Students can read, study, and prepare endlessly for the verbal section of the SAT, and still walk into the testing halls deathly nervous about the possibility of being thrown a curveball essay question or an impenetrable passage. Creating this level of anxiety seems a bit cruel, and certainly skews the results in favor of kids with icewater in their veins.

On the other hand, maybe students shouldn't be able to so straightforwardly learn what they need to know for the SAT. The teachability of grammar may just put those who can afford prep courses at an even greater advantage. The SAT is supposed to be a counterweight to a student's grades, measuring some intangible quality that grades can't express. Native intelligence, perhaps, or an ability to think. But who can claim to fairly test those things? Wouldn't it be better, and fairer, on a standardized test, to test students on standardized material?

At any rate, it's a messy business. Which brings me right back to why I love the new grammar section: It's neat.

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