educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Writing for dummies: Standardized tests are destroying education, part 3 (of a plethora)

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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’.”

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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6 Responses to “Writing for dummies: Standardized tests are destroying education, part 3 (of a plethora)”

  1. Hopefully, you’re one of the prophets of a new, sensible take on education, Scott. Have a few more locusts and keep writing. You’re dead on, my friend,

  2. I like the idea of tracing the writing issue back to a thinking issue. I also believe this robotic writing (thinking) of ours transcends generations. I often reference “kids these days” because it is their writing mostly put before me (do dangling prepositions get caught by the “robo-readers”?).
    I refuse to show my kids any concern or importance for standardized tests. We are prepared to launch ourselves into home-schooling as soon as the state interferes, but that shouldn’t be a problem. After all, my kids play up.

  3. Great as always. How did it end though? I couldn’t seem to understand anything beyond paragraph five.

  4. Nice one Scott – a plethora of information! As an educator I have to say that I feel all parties involved in the ‘writing’ educational process are to blame for our current situation. The writing assessment on any standardized test – first grade Terra Nova’s to the SAT – should not be foreign to the student taking the test. Their writing should be second nature, crossing the curriculum, and well versed. Educators don’t seem to have provided the appropriate, real life, practice. How often do you see children write more than a phrase or fragment when responding to a question? Better yet, how often do you hear students respond verbally with a complete sentence? We, educators, allow one word ‘yeahs’. As I tutor SAT students I have found that writing skills have not been the academic focus of their education since maybe third grade. But more so, I have had to reteach the students how to read the prompt carefully [for understanding], stop at periods, pause at commas, and use context clues to determine the meaning of difficult words. There is no excuse for this in my opinion. All educators, at all levels, in all subject areas need to raise the written language bar a bit higher. Students don’t need to be ‘graded’ on grammar in science class, but they could be expected to use it properly when replying to open ended questions. One more example of all of us passing the buck to someone else. My writing instruction motto – if you can say it properly, you can write it properly. [copy write pending…lol] It really works! Many students I have worked with are no longer anxious about simply answering a question in writing…especially after they realize they can correctly reply verbally. Stay realistically optimistic with a dash of pessimism every now and then. [PS… do not grade my reply – it’s 5AM and my fingers are not on speaking terms with my brain right now!…lol]

  5. But what is the solution given the size of the student population?

  6. Today my fourth grader complained about the time for the writing portion of her test. Not that it wasn’t enough time to write – but that there wasn’t time to write enough! Talk about stifling creativity. Her storyline for “the adventures of your shoes” was written from the perspective of the left and right shoe talking to each other. How do you “score” that?

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