Date of Award

Winter 2012

Project Type


Program or Major


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy

First Advisor

Paula M Salvio


Few studies have looked at the consequences of standardized writing tests to students' understanding of what it means to be a competent writer. Using research techniques drawn from performance studies and art therapy, this qualitative study of middle class, honors students invited them to explore their understanding of what it means to be a high scoring writer on the SAT.

The theoretical framework of the study is situated at the intersection of three fields: cultural production theory, New Literacy Studies and object relations theory. The study has two related strands. In the first, I perform a socio-historical analysis of the setting, Yankee City, and its schools from the Great Depression when James Conant first identified the SAT as a vehicle to a classless society to the current era when neo-liberal policies assert that standardized testing will ensure that all students receive the education necessary to succeed in life. I argue that standardized testing has done more to normalize the belief that society distributes its rewards fairly than to provide opportunities for social mobility. In the second strand, I explore the tensions my seven participants experienced between agency and structure, creativity and compliance, as they imagined the writers of high scoring SAT essays. Drawing from the object relations theory of D. W. Winnicott, I consider the consequences of taking up the discourses of standardized testing to my participants' capacity for creative and critical engagement with their social worlds.

Participants' demonstrated substantial variation in the discourses of schooling and gender they took up as they imagined an SAT prompt writer and two high scoring essay writers. The girls imagined the testing environment as authoritative and hostile and described high scoring SAT writers as abstract, objective and compliant. The boys imagined a testing environment peopled by fellow human subjects and high scoring SAT writers who imagined contexts for writing that subverted positions of power in the testing context. Findings suggest that a regime of high stakes, standardized writing tests will work to perpetuate the compliance of society's most vulnerable writers.