T Sale's Blog

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Ready, Set, Write

In the last couple of years I’ve noticed an increasing trend in my English classes: students asking for more than the allotted class time for essay tests. In the past, my answer has always been no; an essay test is a controlled measure of your knowledge and it would be unfair to give you more time than other students. But I’m changing my mind about this.

For one thing, more accommodations allowing extra time on tests are mandated by IEPs and 504s, and it seems there’s always at least one student who has been granted extra time. The AP Literature test requires three essays to be written in two hours, so for years we have prepared students by having them write a weekly in-class essay with a 40 minute time limit. Recently I have had a few AP students who have asked for extra time, one of whom has a 504 that will grant extra time on the actual test.

But perhaps more compelling is the idea that truly assessing a student’s knowledge should not be time-dependent. I point out to my students that timed writings are a particularly academic pursuit. Where else in the real world, except perhaps as a journalist, would you have to pound out an essay in a certain amount of time with no chance to revise and polish it? (I’m probably wrong about this too, as I seem to be about so many things lately. In the fast-paced world of blogs and wikis, maybe rapid, on-the spot-writing is becoming more the norm. It would be interesting to ask some engineers and lawyers and corporate wonks if this is true.) Given that most of my essay “tests” (really in-class writings) are open book and don’t depend on memorization, is it unfair to let a student who has a lot to say finish the writing in an off hour the next day? Will the extra time to think about the question give her an advantage over the students who said all they had to say in 58 minutes?

I’d be interested to hear what people think about this.


  • At Sat Dec 01, 06:53:00 PM 2007, Blogger Dharmasattva said…

    Hi, Mr. Sale! As a former student (Carrie Jacobsohn '92) and a lawyer, I think it's valuable for students to learn how to write extemporaneously under time constraints, but also to do so without time limits.

    For one thing, many students will encounter standardized tests like AP exams and the SAT long after they graduate from high school: e.g. tests like the GMAT, GRE, LSAT, etc. as well as professional licensure tests like bar exams and medical boards. These are all timed endeavors.

    But it does not stop there. In my professional life, I am often been required to write (sometimes in a technical, non-narrative way, like drafting contract language, and sometimes more narratively) under tight time constraints. Of course, sometimes those time constraints arise out of my own procrastination but also frequently out of circumstances beyond my control :-)

    In any case, those who find themselves writing in their college and professional lives will encounter both scenarios.


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