How SAT Essays Are Graded

  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.    

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