Dan Verner, a former English teacher at James W. Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County, was enjoying what he thought was a useful retirement. He helped his daughters with various projects and made sure his parents' and his mother-in-law's houses were in good repair.
But his wife, Becky, music director at a Manassas church, did what the wives of seemingly underutilized retirees often do. She suggested he get a job.
"I sing in your choir," he said. That did not satisfy her, so when he saw a newspaper story about the need for experienced educators to grade the new SAT essay question, he thought he might apply.
He learned that the essays were transmitted to official readers via the Internet, so could do the work on the computer in his den. He had always liked sitting and reading by himself.
"No annoying trips out to interact with others!" his older daughter, Amy, observed in an e-mail.
In the nightmares of high school students who must complete the essay in no more than 25 minutes, SAT graders are stiff, cold-blooded monsters who grin wickedly as they take off points for dangling participles, extraneous adverbs and other such flaws.
But in real life, testing officials said, the 3,790 graders are more like Verner, a 57-year-old music lover who said he enjoys judging often unpredictable student essays just as much as he liked teaching for 32 years. He often reads the SAT entries wearing shorts, a T-shirt labeled "Wonderbread" and no shoes while Nacho the family cat slumbers in a chair beside him.
And rather than being devastatingly picky, Verner follows scoring rules that tell him to overlook small grammatical or spelling mishaps and focus on how well an essay delivers its message. "A good piece of writing does certain things," he said. "It's organized. It has a central idea and a progression of ideas. The language is effective and vocabulary is apt and varied."
Verner grew up in Fairfax County, graduated from W.T. Woodson High School (SAT score: 735 verbal, 730 math) and started in his first and only job, at Robinson, after attending Wesleyan University and getting his degree in English at American University.
Having never applied for work since 1971, he thought he was just having an introductory telephone chat with a woman from Pearson Educational Measurement, the Iowa City-based company that won the contract to score the essay question. But when, after 15 minutes of pleasant conversation, he asked when he would get his job interview, she said, "You just had it."
On May 2, he began his training in Amy's old bedroom on the second floor of his 1968 brick-and-siding house in Manassas, working on a 1999 Gateway computer cast off by his younger daughter, Alyssa. The Pearson people said the machine needed more memory to receive the scanned, handwritten essays, so Alyssa's husband, Greg Maimone, a computer expert, came over and snapped in the proper hardware.
Training consisted of 17 hours of reading sample essays, doing 10 at a time and then being assessed on his scoring. He consulted with trainers when he strayed too far from the judgment of the College Board, which administers the SAT, of what should merit a 6 (clear and effective) or a 1 (murky and disorganized).
Verner's problem was that he had worked at one of the highest-achieving high schools in the country. He said it took him a few hours to recalibrate himself and accept the fact that the national standard for high school writing was below that of Fairfax County.
Early news reports suggested that SAT readers might take less than a minute to judge each essay. But Verner and Pearson officials said the actual time per essay is closer to 21/2 minutes. Eventually, Verner said, "I got my mind right. It was like being in a zone."
The work is organized as if the essays were potato chips in a huge bowl dumped in front of hungry graders. At 1 p.m. on the Tuesday after each Saturday SAT, a 10-day essay scoring period opens during which certified readers can log on to the Pearson Web site at any time except 1 to 8 a.m. and start scoring. Verner's next chance to score essays will be after the October SAT.
Scorers are paid $17 an hour, with time and a half if they work more than 40 hours a week. Verner said he has never put in more than an 11-hour day during a testing period, with breaks for meals and other relaxation. He estimates that he has read 4,000 essays, usually with the stereo playing classical music -- Mozart's Piano Concerto No. 21 in C is a favorite -- or Gordon Lightfoot for an energy boost.
More than 1.4 million SAT essays have been scored since the test debuted in March, each being read by two graders. Verner has taken on five times the average workload for scorers.
The revamped SAT, which colleges use in the admissions process, has its critics. FairTest, the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, says on its Web site that the essay question "will encourage educators to focus on how to write formulaic five-paragraph essays rather than developing students' writing skills more broadly." Verner said he, too, is a critic of high-stakes tests, particularly the Standards of Learning tests in Virginia, but he said he thinks the SAT writing test is a fair and useful measure.
As a teacher, Verner demanded a lot of writing and rewriting, and he sees the SAT essay as a good short exercise. Teenagers' writing, he said, is full of pleasant surprises, with humor, personal asides and vivid descriptions.
Verner said a young woman recently told him the myth that scorers give the best grades to those who write the most. "Anyone who has taught writing . . . can recognize the various ruses that students use to make their writing seem more than it is," he said, "from writing larger to increasing margins to double or triple normal size to using esoteric words."
Scorers call this "the plethora effect" because many students believe "plethora" is a College Board word and "use it inordinately and often inappropriately in their essays," Verner said.
Verner said his new job is much more fun than he thought it would be, even when it causes unhappiness in his neighborhood. A student he knows discovered he was a grader and suggested that he put his name in his paper so Verner could be sure to give him a good score.
"It doesn't work like that," Verner said.
The boy frowned. "I thought you were my friend," he said.