The art of writing. The mysterious skill of writing. Writer Jack Dann once said, “For me, writing is exploration; and most of the time, I’m surprised where the journey takes me.” Alas, for many of our children, writing will never be about exploration, discovery, art, or the challenge of learning complex technical skill. Instead, writing will be standardized, boxed-in, formulaic. It will be an obstacle they need to figure out strategies to get around. Lucky for me, a pre-teen who may or may not live in my home, bless her heart, always has it all figured out. More about that in a moment.
You know that writing components have been added to many standardized testing systems, including the SAT. It’s just a part of the broader movement to narrow the band of education.
Now, using valuable time they might have spent gaming the multiple choice sections of tests like the SAT, students have to figure out how to game the writing sections. They learn to throw in big words. They learn to write long sentences. They learn to make arguments fit five-paragraph essays: Thesis, point one, point two, point three, conclusion. They learn the value of writing a lot, no matter how much they really have to say. They learn the preeminence of neat handwriting.
But what they don’t learn is how to write. They don’t get better at writing by thinking about these writing tests, by practicing for them, or by being evaluated for them.
Evaluated? They just get a number, and there is increasing interest in having that number generated by a machine. In a recent New York Times article about these “robo-readers,” writing researcher Les Perelman discusses his analysis of some of these automated graders, based on his own experiences writing for them. One slight problem, Perelman says, is that truth is unimportant. Robo-graders don’t care if you don’t know your facts. They can’t tell. Also, they like long sentences (sorry Hemingway). They prefer longer essays. They don’t notice if you throw in a random line or two about an unrelated topic. If you take your sentences that start with “and” and “or” and switch them to “however” and “moreover,” Perelman says, these machines see you as having more “complex thinking.”
And so on.
These students learn strategies revolving around using big words and writing long. They learn writing formulas that help them write exactly one kind of writing: The standardized test. Forget the damning generational accusation I often hear: “These kids can’t write.” For every 18-year-old you show me who has writing issues, I’ll show you two forty-somethings with similar issues, even if clear writing is crucial to their field. The students I know are extremely smart, and what they are lacking — when they are lacking— in their writing is not the skill, broadly conceived, but instead the creativity to think outside the five-paragraph format of the standardized test. Gun control: Good. Pollution: Bad.
These students, bred in the era of the five-paragraph standardized testing essay, can produce that five-paragraph argument about almost anything. But I find that when I ask them to say, toss in that sixth paragraph, they’re confused, cagey. “But where would it go?” they wonder. “In an appendix?”
The world, of course, is not broken up into five-paragraph problems. Yet make no mistake about it: The form in which you are trained to write becomes a form that governs the way you think. So they try to see the world in terms of the five-paragraph essay: Contained, neat, easy.
I’m not blaming them. I don’t blame their teachers, either. The stakes in this mad game of educational assessment are too high for their individual classes. It’s hard to blame administrators. In the absence of thoughtful ways of evaluating the overall success of their schools, these tests carry incredible weight; the results are connected to real dollars.
I want to blame the government, but this is the US, and we are the government. Anyway, in his January State of the Union Address, President Obama said, “Stop teaching to the test.” In a February interview with Jon Stewart, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said the same thing. Yet teacher-blogger Anthony Cody asked a reasonable question: “How is it that with both our President and Secretary of Education so firmly against teaching to the test that we have states dramatically increasing the stakes for these tests?”
I suppose, like with most things, we only have ourselves to blame for the growth of this testing farce. So our kids are just going to have to continue to figure out ways to please/beat the system.
Which brings me back to that pre-teen who may or may not live with me. She was getting ready for the written component of her recent battery of standardized tests. “Are you ready for your writing test?” I asked. “Oh yes, I’m ready,” she said, eyes gleaming with confidence, lips pursed, head nodding wisely. “I’m going to use the word ‘plethora’.”
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