States cut writing exams to save money

Illinois won’t test high school juniors’ writing skills, reports the Chicago Tribune. The change will save about $2.4 million. The writing assessments for elementary and middle school students were dropped last year.

Oregon lawmakers last month suspended the writing test for fourth- and seventh-graders, but retained the high school assessment. “Proficient” writing will be a high school graduation requirement by 2013.

In a cost-cutting effort last fall, Missouri education officials eliminated for at least two years the detailed, written response questions that had been hand-graded in science and math. Writing prompts in language arts also were suspended. Students still write some short answers as part of state testing.

It will be a shame if schools spend less time on writing because it’s not going to be on the test, leaving students unprepared to communicate clearly in college or on the job.

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Comments

  1. I wouldn’t worry much. First off, writing tests are not tests of actual writing, but rather tests of written reasoning ability. Regardless of what the rubric says, almost every standardized writing test uses the following four criterion, in this order:

    1. Did the writer answer the question?
    2. DId the writer provide support (of the form required by the test)?
    3. Did the writer organize his answer?
    4. Were the writing quality and mechanics acceptable?

    In some cases, up there in question 1 is “Did the writer follow the instructions?” Some essay tests require the writer to restate an essay’s essential question before answering.

    Writing quality and mechanics can never be more than a point up or down. In practice, a kid with extremely weak skills who answers the question and provides support will still get Basic to Proficient (in SAT scoring, 3-4).

    Most colleges require the SAT/ACT, which have a writing test that uses the same rubric, and if they don’t, they have their own writing test.

    The multiple choice section is a far better predictor of communication skills than the essay is, and far more granular.

  2. Uh, we already have lots of college students unprepared for writing. Even the juniors I get in one of my classes, I have to work intensively with some of them. (And this is a science class, where, “We’re not SUPPOSED to have to write!”)

    The best way to prepare people for writing, I think, is to make them write a lot. And have it be graded (and have the HECK graded out of it) by people who know good writing and can communicate well. And then make the students rewrite their papers until they are acceptable. And do this many, many times.

    Unfortunately, it’s very labor-intensive to grade writing. And if you’re shaky on grammar or syntax to begin with, you can’t really teach another person what’s correct. I don’t see the problems with students being unprepared for college writing getting better any time soon.

  3. Yes, it will be a shame if schools spend less time on writing. But we’ve got to pay for those corporate jet subsidies somehow.

    For the cost of a few cruise missiles that are currently being fired at Libya, this program could be funded.

  4. It seems like most of the writing students do in school is navel-gazing journal entries and or “reaction” pieces (how they “feel” about a particular topic). No wonder they are unprepared for college writing. ricki is right – students need to write a lot (really write, not the touchy-feely stuff), get detailed feedback on what they’ve written, and revise. Rinse and repeat, as often as necessary.

    Reading quality literature would also help – the more books, the better. At least that way some of the better students would pick up writing techniques via osmosis. Less able students would benefit from more explicit writing instruction, though – especially using things like sentence diagramming, sentence combining, learning how to analyze and organize, etc.

  5. If you can’t write clearly, you can’t think clearly– in any subject.

  6. Yes, it will be a shame if schools spend less time on writing. But we’ve got to pay for those corporate jet subsidies somehow.

    For the cost of a few cruise missiles that are currently being fired at Libya, this program could be funded.

    Perhaps, if schools really taught writing and reasoning, comments as jingoistic and empty-headed as this wouldn’t be so prevalent on the internet. Just sayin’.

  7. tim-10-ber says:

    Schools don’t spend enough time on real writing as it is…very sad!

  8. J. Remarque says:

    Cal wrote: “almost every standardized writing test uses the following four criterion…”

    “Criterion” is singular. “Criteria” is plural. Forgive me if I don’t take your opinion about “communication skills” at face value.

  9. Peace Corps says:

    Jeez, be skeptical of everything you see posted, but don’t judge on “criterion” vs. “criteria.” I’m sure Cal knows the difference. Most people don’t proofread their posts. I know I don’t. I often see my mistakes after I hit “POST COMMENT.”

  10. Deirdre Mundy says:

    State writing tests have always been a joke. I mean, sure, it’s great to know how to write a five paragraph essay where the introduction states your thesis, and each of the three body paragraphs gives one point in support of it, and the conclusion restates the thesis…. BUT if that’s all you know how to do, you’ll ace the test and think you’re ready for college —-and then fail miserably when you get there.

    Writing tests are a waste of time and money. Good English teachers, on the other hand, are worth every cent.

    On the other hand, kids who don’t read won’t be able to write. They’re not at home with the written word. And for them, there’s only so much an English teacher can do.

    —-
    BTW– do elementary schools still have units like “Writing a business letter”, “writing a classified ad”, “writing a letter of complaint”, and “writing an editorial”?

    Writing tests weren’t widespread when I was a kid, but from about 3rd grade on, we had a LOT of explicit writing instruction. Maybe if we dropped the tests, teachers could have more time to teach modes of communication outside of the 5 paragraph essay!

    (Sorry is this is gibberish— no coffee yet……..)

  11. Actually, I started to write, “The most important criterion is….” and then realized it would be too awkward to write that way, so I made a list. And yes, I noticed I hadn’t changed the word after I posted.

    However, you don’t have to take my post at face value. I am an expert in standardized writing tests, having coached hundreds of classes through their SAT/ACT/LSAT/GRE/GMAT tests, and tracked scores all the way through. I’ve also coached high school students through the EAP on many occasions.

    And, when the Post and the Merc published my op eds, the copy editors found no grammar errors in my drafts.

  12. Actually, poor communication skills (verbal and written) usually are the reason why many potential employees never get an interview. In many cases, upwards of 80% of job applications and resumes are strewn with errors in spelling, grammar, and readability (and usually wind up being tossed into the shredder without a second glance).

    Two of the most useful courses I ever took in higher education were in the English Department (business writing and technical writing). I didn’t understand the importance of English in high school, but I found out how useful it was later in life.

  13. I wish California would dump the 4th grade STAR writing test to save money because then I wouldn’t have to waste time next year coaching my DD how to respond to the completely lame prompts in a timed situation. She’s an excellent writer and won high praise from her teacher when she took an online CTY course last year. However, she tends to be very reflective and trying to get her to crank out some formulaic 5 paragraph essay in 45 minutes brings her to tears. She loves words and wants to get just the perfect ones in her writing. There isn’t time for that in a standardized testing situation and that causes my DD to have a meltdown.

    There’s got to be a better way to assess writing than having students spend 45 minutes responding to a lame prompt like: “Imagine that you are asked to keep an elephant for a week. Write a story about your unusual experiences with your elephant.”

  14. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Crimson– Well, part of the problem is that BETTER prompts don’t just assess writing ability– they also assess background knowledge. For instance, AP Euro and AP English Lit had pretty interesting essay topics back when I took them (more than 15 years ago). But the prompts could be more complex because the tests assumed that all students should have the same background knowledge.

    These “basic skills” writing tests are trying to measure pure ‘writing ability’ without measuring whether a student can think or has anything interesting to think about. But writing isn’t just about a ‘skill.’ It’s about having something to say. You can have flawless prose style and still write a lousy essay. The essay is a means to communicate knowledge and ideas. Once you remove them from the equation, essays are necessarily nonsense.

  15. To Quincy:
    And when one has nothing substantive to say and can’t articulate a reasoned argument, one hides behind insults.

  16. Mark Roulo says:

    CW,

    Since the STAR test results have no impact on your daughter’s future (my understanding of how STAR works anyway), and you think the prompts are stupid, why are you spending any time at all prepping her for a meaningless test?

  17. Sorry Jack, but jingoistic and empty-headed pretty well describes your first comment. It was a cheap shot at your political opponents that shows zero understanding of the federal system of government. Pray tell, what exactly does federal spending have to do with states cutting programs?

  18. MR- it isn’t “meaningless” because one of the conditions that my DH has placed upon continuing homeschooling (through a virtual charter) is scoring in the “advanced” range on the STAR test. Reading and math require little in the way of specific test prep since those skills are pretty much covered in the curriculum we use. But the kind of idiotic timed writing prompts on the STAR is not something I would otherwise do. I don’t want my DH to flip out over some less-than-stellar writing test score and insist she be enrolled in the neighborhood B&M school (which is mediocre) as a result.

  19. Not the strongest support system you have for your little mini school.

    In any event, they aren’t idiotic, and your daughter’s tendency to melt down is one more reason why she might be better off in those “mediocre schools” without a mommy to cater to her every idiosyncrasy.

    If you want to teach, then be a good teacher, and tell your daughter to get over herself and get the job done.

  20. The B&M school would not have her doing pre-algebra in 4th grade as she’ll be doing at home. Nor would they be having her do middle school science, grammar, vocabulary, spelling, etc.

    But she’d probably get lots of practice writing 5 paragraph essays imagining keeping an elephant for a week or what she would change if she ran the world or relating a time when she was brave or any of the other asinine “personal narrative” prompt I’ve seen (insert “roll eyes” smiley here)

    I bet you think the reality TV prompt on the recent SAT writing test was a good one, too…

  21. The B&M school would not have her doing pre-algebra in 4th grade as she’ll be doing at home. Nor would they be having her do middle school science, grammar, vocabulary, spelling, etc.

    So what? So your daughter, like every other suburban kid in America, can do more advanced work than is in the curriculum? Wow.

    You do know that there’s zero evidence that exposing kids to advanced work at an early age means that they’ll be all that more advanced in high school or college, right?

    You also know, I hope, that most parents with kids who can do pre-algebra in 4th grade (which is a huge, huge number of kids) , let their kids go to public school and then learn the same thing your daughter learns–except for fun, in their spare time? Which means that your daughter is taking 10-20 times longer to learn what they do.

    Don’t kid yourself. Bright 9 year olds are extremely common, and most parents don’t have a husband who foots the bill for mom to stay home and pretend she’s doing something valuable with her time. At least your husband expects very high results (or will you be doing something Atlanta-like on those tests, now, to keep your “job”?).

    (Why do so many parents think it’s normal to announce that their kids “have meltdowns” as something we should feel sympathetic to? Are they really that ignorant? “Hi, I’ve got a kid who gets so upset when she feels she can’t do a normal task that she melts down completely and has a hysterical fit, poor dear. Why can’t I get her out of that normal task?” I mean, don’t they realize they are actually saying “Hi, I’m a horrible parent who doesn’t realize I’m raising a hothouse child who will undoubtedly require someone else other than me to help her GET OVER HERSELF because I’m too stupid to realize it’s my job?”)

  22. Cal, you are one tough monkey.

  23. “You also know, I hope, that most parents with kids who can do pre-algebra in 4th grade (which is a huge, huge number of kids) , let their kids go to public school and then learn the same thing your daughter learns–except for fun, in their spare time?

    In what spare time, pray tell? If she were enrolled in the local B&M school, she’d come home at 3 P.M. to face a packet of worksheets that for her would be nothing more that “busywork”. I know this because I see kids at our local library finishing them. That leaves very little time for extracurriculars and just being a kid.

    Why on Earth wouldn’t I just skip all the wasted time being bored in a traditional classroom and completing “busywork” and instead give her the challenging academics at home?

    You do know that there’s zero evidence that exposing kids to advanced work at an early age means that they’ll be all that more advanced in high school or college, right?

    This makes no sense. If she takes Algebra I earlier, then she’ll finish the high school sequence earlier, and move on to college-level math that much sooner than she would if forced to wait until 8th grade to enroll in Algebra I.

  24. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Actually, I think “Not being bored out of her mind and despairing of ever fitting in” is a perfectly good reason to homeschool. Frequently, the alternative is a fourth grader who spends time daydreaming about how nice it would be to get hit by a truck and spend the rest of the year in a hospital so she wouldn’t have to face another day at the local public school.