“I’m a bad writer,” Jillian told me on the first day of her freshman writing class a few falls ago.
“According to who?” I asked.
“All my high school teachers said so,” Jillian said, resigning herself to a semester of misery in my class.
Jillian, as it turns out, wasn’t a bad writer at all – she was a good writer who just needed some practice and confidence. My bigger challenges that semester teaching first-year composition courses at Bridgewater State College (now University) were the students who had been told by their high school teachers that they were good writers.
Because those students were often not good writers at all. They were good test takers, but in a public education system where everything is measured by standardized testing, students who follow a formula succeed in writing assignments while students like Jillian – who instinctively use writing as a critical thinking tool – suffer.
“When students raise their hands to ask questions, they ask rule questions – stuff like ‘How many paragraphs does it have to be?’” said Linda Oatman High, a children’s author who visits classrooms around the country to talk about her books and lead creative writing exercises. “There’s been a marked decline in creativity in both students and teachers, and it’s only been that way since the No Child Left Behind.”
Oatman High is referring to the Bush administration legislation that will mark its tenth anniversary in May. The standards-based education reform bill requires states to develop assessments of basic student skills and in most states, including Massachusetts, that has taken the form of testing in core subjects, including writing. That, coupled with the writing portion of the SAT that was introduced in 2005, has resulted in a new way of teaching writing that many educators – myself included – feel is detrimental to the very skills the tests are trying to assess.
Massachusetts has been administering the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System exams since 1993, when the state legislature passed a bill requiring successful completion of the exams for all public school students before high school graduation. I graduated high school in 1991, two years before “standardized testing” became the dreaded catch phrase for secondary school teachers and students across the state.
Without children of my own, I had little knowledge of MCAS and No Child Left Behind until the fall of 2007, when I started teaching writing classes at Bridgewater State as a way to supplement my income as an author and freelance writer. It didn’t take much more than a semester for me to sense that there was a fundamental difference between the way I had been taught to write as a high school student and the way my freshman writing students had been taught.
A Broken System
Like Oatman High, I noticed a lot of rules questions, as well as questions about rubrics and queries like “What do I have to do to get an A?” But that wasn’t my first clue that something was wrong; my first clue was in how formulaic the responses were. It didn’t matter if they went to different high schools. If students in my classes had gone to a public high school in Massachusetts – as most of my first-year students at Bridgewater State had – their writing had a feel and flow that was similar work submitted by other students.
My ban on the five-paragraph essay that was a staple in high school English classes as far back as when I was in high school sent waves of panic through the classroom. The problem with the formula, I explained, is that it was redundant. The students laid out their main points three times each in the short span of five paragraphs – once in the introduction paragraph, then a paragraph devoted to each of the main points in the essay’s body, then again in the conclusion paragraph. Not only is that inefficient writing, I said, but it didn’t push the students to dig deeper into a topic – something that would be crucial in college, where writing assignments were generally longer and required students to show a degree of critical thinking.
Nor did many of my students understand how to write an argumentative essay. They could outline both sides of an argument, but were reluctant to take one side over another. My next ban was on rhetorical questions and, specifically rhetorical questions to start an essay. My students would often spend the entire assignment examining each side of the issue – under the false assumption there were only two sides to any given issue – never picking a side and using facts to build an argument or advance a point of view. This essay, for example, may have started with the sentence “Does standardized testing in high schools hurt students’ abilities to succeed in college writing assignments?” and then gone on to offer a balanced list of the pros and cons of standardized testing of writing.
Even if there are very few pros.
“The prompt is almost irrelevant – an amazing number people come into college having written these essays well, but they can’t get by in college,” said Michael Weiler, who owns and operates Success Link Tutoring. “The goal is to learn how to do well on a test – it’s not to learn how to write.”
Weiler developed a one-on-one tutoring program that is used in California, New York and Washington, D.C. In addition to preparing students for standardized tests in those states, he helps students prepare for all three portions of the SAT and boasts his tutors can usually prepare a student for the writing portion of the SAT in a single session. But Weiler is the first to concede that’s more a testament to how easy the test is.
“It’s so formulaic that it’s easy for us to prep a student for the writing portion of the SAT…But it in no way prepares a student to perform well in college,” he said. “It’s almost a conflict of interest on our part – on one hand we’re hired to help kids do well on the test, but that is often different than helping them prepare to do well in college.”
Weiler said standardized testing – both those administered by states and the writing portion of the SAT – place a particular burden on minority students. Many students, regardless of their race, are in for a culture shock and in my classes it was the students who had done well on MCAS writing tests but suddenly found themselves struggling on college writing assignments. That can be an extra burden for some minority students, many of whom are first generation college students and may have already been unsure on whether college was the right place for them.
“The solution is going to be hard to come by,” Weiler said of the emphasis placed on standardized testing. “But a lack of a better alternative should never justify sticking with a system you know is broken.”
Grading the graders
None of my friends who teach in public elementary and high schools felt comfortable speaking to me about standardized testing on the record, but they didn’t need to. It’s no secret that school district funding and, in some cases, a teacher’s job, are dependent on how well their students perform on the tests. What I didn’t expect was how in tune students were with this.
When I explained my grading system to one class, I noted that I considered a C to be the average grade. By that thinking, most students would get C’s, with slightly fewer getting B’s and D’s and the fewest number of students would get A’s and F’s. Three students immediately raised their hands, all with the same question.
“If you expect most of us to get C’s, shouldn’t you be doing more as a teacher to make sure more of us get A’s?”
Likewise, when I casually referred to a colleague as being an “easy” professor because of his reputation for giving most of his students A’s, two students jumped to his defense. “That doesn’t mean he’s easy – it just means he’s a good teacher.”
Never mind the obvious disconnect of logic, in that, as college professors, we give our own grades. If grades were a true assessment of how effective we were in the classroom, we’d simply give ourselves A’s by making sure all of our students graduated with 4.0 GPA’s. But the MCAS tests, which are scored independently by third party companies, are different – the only control a teacher has on their students’ “success” is how well they prepare them before the test.
“It’s really getting out of control,” Weiler said of test prep efforts in high school classrooms. “For administrators and teachers your job and reputation are on the line based on these scores, so you have to funnel the students into a track that emphasizes test prep.”
In certain subjects – math and some sciences, in particular – rote memorization makes sense. There are only so many ways to solve the mathematical formulas MCAS assesses. But writing is different – writing is critical thinking, where there shouldn’t be right and wrong answers, only good and bad efforts. If we look at writing as a craft, then we understand that good writing is often the product of careful revision. Standardized testing doesn’t allow for the instruction of revision, because a standardized test and its regimented time limits give students only one chance to get it right or wrong.
My own high school English teacher – who wasn’t handcuffed by standardized testing – said the way to teach writing is to simply have students read a lot and write a lot (a strategy I still employ in my own classrooms). The role of the instructor is to simply speed up the process of learning to write by helping guide students through revisions. Students do write a lot in preparing for the MCAS exams and other standardized writing tests. The problem is they write to the same prompt using the same formula over and over again.
“There’s no intrigue, and there’s no personal motivation to become writers. It removes ownership from the writing students produce,” said Angela Engel, author of Seeds of Tomorrow: Solutions for Improving Our Children’s Future. Engel became a leading opponent of standardized testing after she started volunteering in her daughters ‘classrooms in Littleton, Colo. After seeing how writing was taught there, she started researching the impact standardized tests were having of writing instruction across the country.
A generation ago, Engel said, students were taught how to write as a way to understand rich content. Now the emphasis has shifted from a depth of understanding to a breadth of understanding.
“We’ve created a systematic approach to writing and anyone who writes professionally will tell you that’s not the way you learn how to write. You learn how to write by spending time writing all sorts of different things,” she said. “Now we develop students that are capable of producing the desired outcome and that outcome needs to be defined.”
“We’re in big trouble”
A funny thing happened this past fall, when I started researching the topic on my own as a way to understand the writing environment my students were coming from. The emails I sent to friends who had school-aged children and friends who worked in public education became the kind of thing that got passed from one person to the next with notes like “You may want to talk to this guy.”
The funny thing was that, with one exception, I couldn’t find anyone who had something good to say about standardized testing in general and, specifically, standardized testing for preparing students for college-level writing assignments. That one exception was from the spokesperson of a company that acts as a consultant and helps states develop standardized tests – as well as the expensive teaching materials it sells to school systems to help prepare students for the very tests it develops. When I explained the purpose of this essay in an email and then called to schedule an interview, they stopped responding to my queries.
Engel sees the problem as “everything being prompt, prompt, prompt.” We’re developing students who can only respond to questions, not ask questions that leads to the deeper inquiry so crucial to success in college. We’re sending more and more students to post-secondary education than ever before, and many of the students are going as a result of programs that make it easier to obtain student loans.
But if students aren’t prepared to succeed in college – and writing remains a crucial cornerstone of success in college – those students fail out and are left with those loans. They don’t, however, have the higher salaries a college degree generally affords them to repay those loans, meaning they either struggle to repay them or default.
“We’re producing students who are adept at filling in the blanks but analytical and critical thinking skills are no longer employed,” Engel said. “We have defined the goal of our education system as having every child demonstrate the same level of knowledge – that does not make for an educated citizenry. We’re in big trouble.”