'Poof! I was in template land'

Florida elementary students are using colorful writing on the state exam — the same colorful phrases in essay after essay.  The Florida Education Department warned 49 schools about “template writing” on the FCAT, reports the Orlando Sentinel.

The department has dubbed the problematic essays “poof! papers” because last year one of the most common examples was fourth-graders writing “Poof!” and then going to dragon land, pirate land, fairy land or candy land. “In the blink of an eye,” “one quintessential, supersonic day,” and “a kaleidoscope of colors encircled me” were other popular phrases.

Of course, it could be a coincidence.  Fourth graders always like to discuss their quintessential days.

Via Ed Week’s Web Watch.

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  1. Maybe the kids are all watching the same TV shows.

    Seriously, what could be the source of these phrases? Shared learning materials?

  2. Michael E. Lopez says:

    The source is almost certainly the teachers, who show some model essays which the students then clumsily adapt.

    But that doesn’t bother me. What gets me is that they mandate a standardized writing test, then have the audacity to complain about “template writing”! What do they think the students and teachers are… stupid? OF COURSE they’re going to take the path of least resistance.

  3. I teach a writing-tested grade in Florida and we are ENCOURAGED to use template writing. You should see the amount of paper the state sends us every year demonstrating what qualifies as good writing. Going outside the box will certainly not get high marks, and — according to the latest workshops — grammar and sentence structure don’t count!?! And sure enough, some of my kids who couldn’t write their way out of a paper bag passed with 4s or higher.

  4. Lynn, I get your students when they matriculate at university. “What? We’re being graded on grammar?! You meanie! No one has ever graded us on that before!” It is really hard to convince them that writing grammatically actually matters when they’ve had 12 years of training to the opposite view.

  5. If the state has developed a test that can be answered effectively with this kind of stuff, why fault teachers and kids for using it? You want better answers? Write better prompts and assess the answers in a way that doesn’t reward the stuff you don’t want to see.

    If you think there was cheating and collaboration during the actual test, handle that like you would any cheating.

  6. This is bound to happen with high-stakes testing. And you really can’t call it cheating. From what Lynn says, the teachers and the students are doing exactly what the state thought it wanted them to do!

  7. How is this different from the five paragraph theme? Or, as we see on the AP exam over and over and over, “The author uses diction to show what he means.”

  8. Lightly Seasoned,

    Well, the author didn’t do an interpretive dance or mime so they sort of have a point.

  9. Devilbunny says:

    I’m a passable writer. People usually are able to comprehend what I want to convey with minimal pain, but I certainly have no gift for turns of phrase.

    Nonetheless I was shocked – flummoxed – stunned – floored – when I got to college and met people who couldn’t write worth a damn. My writings may wander, they may fret, and they certainly lack style – but I do know basic (and I do mean basic) grammar and spelling, and can focus on a point. I wondered how many of them had gotten admission, but I suppose that a basic familiarity with literacy hasn’t been important for a long time. (I started college in 1993. Let me assure you, the preparation of students at a very respectable small liberal arts school was abysmal.)

  10. Margo/Mom says:

    “This is bound to happen with high-stakes testing. And you really can’t call it cheating.”

    See–I don’t get why anyone believes that poor teaching is the inevitable consequence of making things matter. The stakes, in most cases are not terribly high. Kids in lower grades are seldom penalized (or rewarded for that matter) based on their test scores (despite a few states that have experimented with holding kids back wholesale). Teachers, schools and districts, despite a whole lot of hysteria about jobs being threatened and funding lost (blatently untrue), are mostly require to demonstrate efforts at improvement for five to seven years before the state of reconstitution is reached. Even then, contracts remain in place, so teachers are primarily shuffled about.

    Heaven forbid that students should be expected to demonstrate that they are able to communicate some organized thoughts by stringing sentences together. I don’t suggest that teaching writing is easy. But to suggest that the logical response to measuring the outcome of that teaching is that teachers, curriculum directors, principals and others will resort to drilling kids in “poof” essays (or even the five paragraph standard, if taught in isolation from any other writing) really doesn’t expect much from the profession.

    And cheating is cheating. High stakes or no. It’s cheating when it happens on a bar exam (pretty high stakes), or licensing exams, or even the eye exam for a driver’s license. It’s never hard, I suppose, to talk one’s self into believing its something else, but that’s in the nature of temptation–not a result of the stakes.

  11. Margo,

    The tests wouldn’t have to yield these results it they were assessed well, but because they didn’t measure the ability to communicate some organized thoughts by stringing sentences together, but here, seemed to particularly reward the use of colorful or vivid language, the teachers have to figure out a way to show the kids colorful or vivid language, which might even with good teacher involved emphasizing examples (“oh, look at the alliteration in “quintessential, supersonic”), and then the kids use those examples. In this case, it wouldn’t surprise me if the classrooms even had posters up throughout the year with, vivid transition ideas and “Poof, I was in ______ land” as one of them. And I’m guessing because it was at more than one school, some staff development classes or shared teaching materials spread the idea around.

    I don’t see this as cheating unless the kids are coached on it during the actual test, the posters are still up in the room during testing, etc. If your law professor tells you that bar exam graders like to see this type of introduction, is that cheating? If someone tells you that for your licensing exam, including a references to particular philosophies or cases is worth X number of points and they present you with a list of philosophies and cases, is that cheating?

    I wouldn’t say so. Might there be a better why to teach writing? Absolutely, but if you give high stakes tests that measure a particular thing, you create an incentive to address that particular thing specifically.

    It would be interesting to know how the “Poof, I was in _____ land essays did score-wise compared to similar quality essays that didn’t use the templates. My guess is that they scored higher, and that’s why I think this particular testing is to blame rather than the teachers.

  12. I don’t mean in my bar and licensing examples, that you are using handouts on the test, of course, just that you were provide the information about scoring in advance of the test.

  13. Margo-
    Whether you care to believe it or not; kids, teachers and parents take standardized testing very seriously. It doesn’t matter that the tests themselves aren’t used for promotion to the next grade or determining teacher pay. For everyone involved, the stakes are high. We can tell students that they’re well-prepared and that they can trust their own skills until we’re blue in the face, but when we show them examples or models of what they might use on their tests, they will frequently fall back on those models in lieu of something they come up with on their own. Generally speaking, they higher the stakes, the lower the confidence people place in their own skills and knowledge and the more they will rely on the advice or examples of others, especially when the task calls for creativity. (Remember trying to figure out how to dance in a high school gym?)

    And it’s not cheating. Remember; the teacher told them that “quintessential” was a really neat adjective. And the in-service teacher told the classroom teacher that “quintessential” is a really neat adjective. And it actually is; when used correctly and sparingly!