Sunday, July 1, 2007

High Stakes Testing is Killing Young Writers

Okay, I just imported a picture to my very thoughtful blog about what high stakes testing in writing has done to to the teaching of writing. I spent a lot of time on it to be specific about how the very scripted formulaic writing being taught in response to the test has done terrible damage. I imported the picture, went to preview, there was no picture, I clicked SAVE and wanted to edit the blog, but behold--up in cyberspace it went. So, I'll try to recap. First, let me say I am a teacher and after many years came out of the classroom to train teachers to teach writing for my school district.

Today, in school, (in the majority of classrooms--there are still some very few doing it right) in the teaching of writing there is no attention to craft or process, only the formula of how to repsond to two types of promts. That's the only writing going on in so many schools. There is no attention to writing to make meaing, to choosing just the right word. Instead, kids are given a list of words to use, and similes to use, and specific transition words. Stepford writers. Even when they screw it up, like saying "The floor was humid" instead of wet, the sad thing is, they pass the test. They even say PLETHORA when the reference in only to two or three of something. They are taught that what they call a "million dollar sentence" is one that is at least 9 words long. Usually that just results in a really bad long sentence. They are taught to use a lost of adverb dialogue tags and even have a headstone on a bulletin board that says, "Said is Dead," followed by a long list of other ways to say said. So their writing is filled with chortled, barked, guffawed, muttered, etc. You get the picture. The kids are basically given a madlib to memorize, a skelteon paragraph, and they fill in the blanks. Let me give you an example. Let's suppose the prompt is an expository prompt (writing to explain why). Here is the prompt. Everybody has a favorite day of the week. Think about what your favorite day of the week is. Now, write to explain why that is your favorite day of the week.
Here is the formula given to kids.

Everybody has a ______________(in this case it would be favorite day of the week). But my ___________________(favorite day of the week) is __________________ for three reasons. My first reason is _______________________. My second reason is _________________. My third reason is ______________________.

First, _________________ is my __________________(favoirte day of the week) because ________________________. For example _______________________. One time ______________________(here they put a real or made up anecdote,)

Secondly, (repeat formula for second reason)

Lastly, (repeat formula for third reason)

In conclusion, _________is my _____________(favorite day of the week) because of these three reasons. (Repeat the reasons)

That's it. Finis. And the narrative formula is just as bad. But we can't blame the teachers. In my state (Florida) you can graduate with a degree in education from a college in the state university system and never have to take a methods course in teaching writing. Yet, this same state holds teachers accountable for teaching writing. Go figure. What's wrong with this picture?

IN CONCLUSION, I think we have done more harm than good. More fall out of high stakes testing. If we had any budding talented writers coming along, we've crushed them like cigarette stubs. I wish we had a writers coalition that could be of influence! Find out what is going on in your state. I'd love to hear from you.


JD Rhoades said...

The only reason they even teach "writing" in the current educational environment is so that students will become good employees who can write a coherent corporate memo.

High stakes testing and the priorities it sets are all part of the process of turning our young people into perfect, non-thinking, non-dreaming, worker/consumers. And it's working.

Mark Terry said...

This, unfortunately, explains an awful lot of communications I see coming out of businesses everywhere. There's an awful lot of hideous grammar and misspellings but there's also an awful lot of wooden, awkward writing that has all the basic content needed, but it so stiff that nobody can read it without their eyes glazing over.

Bill Cameron said...

My aunt took early retirement partly because she found teaching to "No! Child Left Behind!" testing standards too heart-breaking. Another friend is just entering teaching (2nd career in her mid-40s) and found the most miserable part of her student teaching experience the whole teaching to the test issue.

Some states are starting to fight back, but I think it's going to be a while before the crippling influence of No Child Left Behind is defeated -- if ever. So sad.

Felicia Donovan said...

Lynn, I'm a Certified English teacher who left teaching after some disheartening experiences. Not only are there problems inherent in writing instruction, but I also take issue with reading instruction as well. Where has the joy of reading and writing gone? In my teaching experience, the strongest writers were usually the most voracious readers. Because these students read widely, they were exposed to many forms of dialogue, understood the complexities of plot and characterization and that transferred to their writing. They had more ability to glean themes and main ideas because they read fluently.

I don't disagree with anything you say, but we'd be well served, IMHO, to scrap the majority of contemporary reading programs, particularly those that emphasize "word recognition" and get back to basics.