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Okay, I’m doing this again. Submit at 7:32. Jeez, my brain froze while mentally looking for the Dvorak colon key. I will no longer pretend that this has any direct relevance to SAT prep beyond the general idea of practicing timed writing; the time limit is just a convenient constant that I can’t talk my way out of at the last minute.

Why do we do timed writing, anyway?

The most obvious reason is also the strongest one: logistics. Specifically, maintaining a balance between fairness and feasibility. It’s meant to be a test of one’s writing ability, in general, because writing is useful. It allows you to communicate your thoughts to others. Then, the prompt on the SAT tests for your general thoughtfulness as well, by being vague and flowery and universally understandable, as well as how well-informed you are, by encouraging you to use examples from your past readings, studies, and experience. The “timed” constraint is simply for feasibility. It would probably be much more reflective of one’s real-life writing output if one received a dictionary and a month in constrained solitude, but that’s immensely impractical. If, instead, we gave students an SAT prompt in advance and simply let them write essays freely at home, there would be no way to prevent them from asking outside sources, resulting in a plethora of essays which instead reflect the quality of the student’s literary connections.

Oh wait, we already do that. They’re called college apps.

Besides, the SAT already is a perfect indicator of the student’s economic conditions, so what’s the problem?

Okay, snark aside, it’s unfortunate but inevitable that any sort of high-stakes test will encourage teaching to the test, and equally inevitable that tests cannot be 100% reflective of whatever skill they’re trying to assess. So as long as these two conditions hold (i.e. always), training and one’s access to it will skew the test results. The question is simply how much that training applies to the real thing.

I remember v_Enhance once mentioning the IMO in a thread about teaching to the test, where he suggested that it was an example where teaching to the test was rather helpful. (I am completely prepared to accept that this is a misrepresentation or misattribution or both, but hey, I won’t get points deducted for factual inaccuracies on the SAT!) Is it? Sure, mathematics is really about solving problems, and the problems are interesting and occasionally show connections to “higher math”, mainly in number theory. And while there are people who can bash absolutely any geometric problem that ever existed using complex numbers, the IMO will never become completely routine. But SAT writing is writing too. You can use metaphors and hyperbole and sesquipedalian words to sound cool all the same.

I suspect that the main reason we like competitions like the IMO more than the SAT is that the former isn’t so completely geared towards assessing people. It also helps just expose students to mathematics outside the classroom, and to each other.

Do I? I realize that the whole timed writing thing really doesn’t reflect normal writing for me well because every time I have a thought, I try to argue against it, and usually end up with a much more moderate stance. Whatever, that was something I thought five minutes ago.

Two (now three) minutes over limit. Ouch.


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