PSAT Cursive Crisis

Anyone taking the PSAT in 2013 is supposed to write out a certain sentence in cursive (sometimes known as “script”) – or at any rate not in “print” (we suspect an “italic” or hybrid style might do).

Homeschoolers in particular (who aren’t privy to morning announcements over the P.A.) might benefit from a heads-up, the reason why, the exact wording of the sentence, and some tips on creating “handwriting” in a hurry (just scroll right down to the bullet point list of tips if you’re rushing out the door for the test).

To start, here’s a compilation of tweets by Anne Elizabeth Moore (“superanne”) from 2012 (titled “PSAT: Cursive” and subtitled “Students Take to Twitter to Complain About PSAT”):

A PSAT proctor, Jessica Brashear, wrote (“The Death of Cursive Handwriting”, October 30, 2012, that a cursive requirement for the PSAT was new that year:

This year’s exam started the same way as every year before. Bubble your name, bubble your expected year of graduation, enter your birth date, and so on.

Each student prepped their answer sheet efficiently until we reached a new section required by the College Board. In a shaded section were three sentences related to confidentiality of testing materials.

I read aloud, “Please read the sentences in the shaded box. Then copy these sentences, in cursive, on the lines provided. Be sure to then print your name and date it. By doing so you are agreeing to the terms outlined by the College Board.”

Blank stares filled the room.

You would have thought I had asked them to perform brain surgery on their best friends.

A few of them scratched their heads. I saw several sets of eyes roll up and to the right while the end of the pencil landed on the chin.

One student in the front row, sat with his pencil to paper for a solid two minutes, visibly combing his memory of second grade handwriting instruction. He could not remember how to script a cursive “I”.

I paused for an exorbitant amount of time, allowing the classroom of Millennials to complete this portion of the paperwork…we hadn’t even opened the test booklets yet!

You can read that whole blog post at this link:

Most of the people writing on the Internet about the new PSAT cursive requirement in 2012 used it either as a reason to champion the teaching of cursive or as an example of the lameness of high school.

But some also speculated on the reason for the change. Many of them suggested (incorrectly but logically enough, based on the instructions read aloud by the proctors) that test-takers had to write the sentence in cursive because it’s an “honor code” and otherwise would not be “legally binding” or “trustworthy.”

Caleb Hawkins, a student at Dos Pueblos High School in Goleta, California, wrote an article titled “The Pointlessness of the PSAT” in The Charger Account (his school’s student newspaper). The part about cursive was this:

No discussion of the PSAT is complete without talking about the cursive writing portion. At the beginning of the test, students are forced to “agree to the terms and conditions” of the test by copying a statement in cursive.

Why cursive? Does it make us more trustworthy? Does it show that we care more than print? Will the graders say to themselves, “He won’t cheat. Look, he wrote it in cursive. He must have meant it.”

The full article can be seen here:

It’s not just students who don’t know why cursive is now required, though. Here’s another PSAT test proctor, writing under the screen name “aciment”, who thinks the purpose is for the statement to be “legally binding”:

My mind-numbing job was just to walk through the aisles, make sure kids were working on the right section and bubbling in the appropriate section on their answer sheets. It was simple enough. But I also had to assist in the initial “fill out your name and address” section which would not have been too difficult if it weren’t for this one major speed-bump:

“Please write the following statement and sign your name. Do not print.”

When the instructions were read aloud there was a moment of silence before 70 perplexed students raised their hands.

“What do you mean, don’t print?”

“I mean, write in cursive. You know, script.”

“But I don’t know how.”

I don’t know how. I don’t know HOW. Did you catch that? I. DON’T. KNOW. HOW.

See while schools across the country have decided to axe the handwriting component that used to be a third and fourth grade staple, they failed to inform the College Board people that a whole generation of test takers will be unable to copy the honor code in a way that will make it legally binding.

Many of these kids did not even know how to sign their own names. One girl asked me to please show her how to make a cursive “z.” Another kid cleverly ignored the brewing controversy in the room and just wrote his name slanted.

You can read the whole blog post (titled “Death of Handwriting” and dated October 28, 2012) on the Writing Elves blog at this link:

Some people have even incorrectly claimed that the cursive is scored – but have reassured test-takers that it isn’t worth many points.

At least a few confused parents have posted on online bulletin boards asking whether their kids’ SAT essays (while the PSAT is entirely multiple-choice and “grid-in”, the SAT has an optional essay) would be invalidated because their kids, who only knew how to print, came home from the SAT saying something about cursive. 

In contrast to all of this misinformation and unfounded worry, Bob Schaeffer of FairTest (the watchdog group that critiques the standardized testing industry) gave a credible explanation, as quoted in a Business Insider article titled “The Long, Troubled History of Cheating on the SAT”. Schaeffer said (and it’s relevant to both the SAT and the PSAT):

Every test-taker has to copy a few sentences—in their own handwriting—saying they are not going to cheat. This is not an honor code, but it does create a handwriting sample that can be compared later on.

Click here for the full article:

According to several sources we consulted, this is the wording of the statement (it’s just one sentence) that test-takers will be expected to write in cursive for the 2013 PSAT (disclaimer: it’s possible that these sources have the wording wrong or that the wording will change in the future, and we haven’t fully researched whether there’s a different version for the SAT):

I hereby agree to the conditions set forth in the test regulations and certify that I am the person whose name, address and signature appear on this answer sheet.

For any test-taker who doesn’t know cursive at all (or hasn’t used it since second or third grade), here are some tips on developing passably “cursive” handwriting in a hurry:

• Put the paper at an angle on the desk so that what you write will end up slanted.

• Write in print as you normally would – but either don’t leave any spaces between the letters (this can take a little practice, since it feels wrong to start the next letter almost on top of the previous one) or connect the letters after you finish each word.

• Add some loops – the most important ones being those on the letters that extend below the lines even when you write in print (like “y” and “g”). Try to do the loops in the right direction (a “g” might be a good letter to practice on, since your print version will probably already include the beginning of the loop).  

• If you have a moment, come up with some swirly-looking version of a capital “I” (as in “I hereby”).  

• If you don’t know what cursive looks like and nobody you know uses it, you can find samples online – just do a search on “cursive.” (For a truly old-fashioned version, you can look for images of the U.S. Constitution online – but that’s not a style that would be easy to learn in a hurry.)

• Don’t forget that you’ll also need a signature. If the I.D. you’re using to get into the testing site has a signature on it (in New York State, at least, a miniature image of the signature that you used on your application form is reproduced on the non-driver’s I.D. card itself), you might want to refresh your memory of what it looks like. (Some kids sign these applications at an age when they don’t otherwise use a signature, so they make up something on the spot and may not remember it years later.)

• Remember what you did (more or less) so that, in the unlikely event that you are ever accused of having cheated on this test, you will be able to reproduce the “handwriting” you’ve now created.

Our main purpose in posting this is to reduce the number of homeschooled kids who will panic on test day because they had no idea they would be expected to write anything in cursive. Panic isn’t good for test-takers, and could lower scores.

Our impression from accounts on the Internet is that many or most proctors don’t scrutinize the cursive sentence. They’d have to object to a lot of versions of it if they did, because even those who normally write in what they consider cursive are often really writing in a hybrid of cursive and print. At least in 2012, proctors just did the best they could to help panicked kids out, for example by writing the sentence, the alphabet, or a few especially dicey letters in cursive on the blackboard (this is one good reason for near-sighted test-takers to remember to take their glasses with them). 

What you need to do, it seems, is to produce a handwriting sample that is somewhat unique (and print isn’t as unique as cursive, so just make your sample look cursive-ish in some way). We think you can easily get away with not really knowing cursive if you just don’t panic. So good luck on the test! (Note: See the P.S. below if this blog post confused you.)

P.S. – For our international readers (since our first blog post went up in January, we’ve had visitors to this blog from 52 other countries) who might be perplexed by this blog post, we should explain that cursive (or “script”) is the traditional way of writing by hand in English (and, of course, many other languages). In contrast, “printing” or “writing in block letters” means writing each letter separately and in a style similar to what you’d see on many signs, in books, or on a computer screen (but typically without the serifs – those little extra lines you can see on some letters in certain fonts).

In the United States in the modern era (even before the widespread use of computers), schools often taught children to write in print at first; taught them cursive in about third grade (age 8 or so); and required cursive from then on (except for those teachers who prohibited it because many kids couldn’t write it legibly). But these days a lot of schools (and homeschool parents) in the U.S. don’t teach cursive at all (or else teach kids only how to read it, not write it).

In many other countries, children have traditionally been taught cursive from the start, and people still commonly use it in their adult lives and may never print by hand at all (even on forms) – that’s why this explanation seemed necessary.