As an English teacher in Volusia County Schools, I read with some interest today’s Daytona Beach News-Journal article by Dustin Wyatt, “What’s so wrong with writing?” about high rates of students avoiding the FSA Writing.
School board member Linda Cuthbert nailed it when she said students don’t want to take this test because they have no interest in the topics. I was once giving a makeup district writing assessment, and when I showed the student the three essays she’d have to read, and the writing prompt she’d use to write about them, she said, “Why would I want to do that?”
Many people might say, “Tough luck! You just need to do it anyway!” This compliance-based, education-as-force-feeding approach may work for some subjects, I suppose (though I doubt it), but it will never work for writing. That is one of the reasons students are avoiding the FSA. To understand how we got into this situation with writing instruction and testing, we need to go back a bit… to the creation of the Common Core Standards (and make no mistake, our Florida Standards are still Common Core, no matter what they renamed them to fool people).
One of the major “instructional shifts” the Common Core touts is more “writing to text,” which means students will do more writing about what they read, synthesizing ideas, and building arguments from things they have read.
Common Core architect (now College Board president) David Coleman seems to have had an agenda in mind when this “shift” was initiated. He once told a group of New York State teachers that students need to write less about their own interests and lives and more about assigned readings, because in real life “nobody gives a [crap] about your personal opinion or your story.”
Like all great lies, the “writing to text” instructional shift, and the philosophy behind it, has a kernel of truth to it. But the approach to writing, and the philosophy behind it, are really parodies of more nuanced, more complicated truths.
The parody of the truth Coleman is promoting is this: Students have only been writing personal narratives. This has left them unable to write more sophisticated types of writing, like analysis of things you have read. Also implied in Coleman's statement, and his "shift," is the idea that a focus on personal narratives also makes children narcissistic, interested only themselves. The truth is more complicated.
Most of us who teach English/Language Arts do not limit our students to an endless string of personal narratives, but vary their writing with a number of genres and purposes. The best writing instructors get their students to write about what they care about. This is because writing about what you care about makes writing more engaging, yes.
But there’s more to it than that. Writing about what you care about is not necessarily self-centered: it means you are interested in something outside yourself. Writing about what you care about is also, quite simply, what real writers do. Real writers in any genre, fiction or nonfiction, write about the things that interest them. Of course, David Coleman would say that not all students are going to be professional writers. No, but they are almost all going to be professionals who write, and one can hope our students will find jobs that match their personal interests and skills, so they will care about what they are writing on the job. In fact, one of the not-so-fringe benefits of good writing instruction is that it can help students discover, explore, and reflect on their own interests and figure out what field they might want to go into some day. It can help them write their own “future stories.”
Writing to text has been touted as more rigorous, more academically challenging, by its proponents. This, again, is a parody of the truth. If by rigorous you mean mind-numbingly dull, then yes, writing to text on the FSA is rigorous. If by rigorous you mean “involving a high level of thought and engagement,” then, no, the FSA is not rigorous.
Over the past decade I have made a case, in my books for teachers, and in my comic strip, against formulaic writing, including the five paragraph essay. Formulaic writing is a crutch many teachers fall back on because they think their students are not capable of anything else. The FSA promotes formulaic writing. Because students are encouraged argue for their side and then to address counterarguments, it’s easy to tell them to write an introduction, two paragraphs of argument, one paragraph of counter-argument, and a conclusion. They have limited time in which to write their test essay, and the five paragraph formula fulfills the requirements quickly and efficiently. And within paragraphs we end up using formulaic writing structures as well. Introduction sentence, introduce, cite, and explain your text evidence. “_____ is one reason we should _____. In the essay _______, the author, _____ says _______. This supports my claim because _____.” Repeat. Use transition words into the next paragraph. The type of writing FSA writing promotes is a step back in rigor, and it is teaching students not how to write, but how to be compliant to a lot of bad writing advice.
Of course, the real reason behind the supposed rigor of writing tests like the FSA is the fact that writing to text makes it easier to use computer scorers rather than human scorers to evaluate the tests. If everyone can take a topic and write about it using different details, as students could on the FCAT writing, then it becomes difficult for a robo-grader to score them. But if everyone is writing about the same three essays, using all the same details, the computer program has a much easier time figuring out whether students wrote well, at least according to the rubric. Keep in mind that if your student takes the writing test on a computer, he/she is scored by one human scorer and by a computer, and the scores are verified against each other. In the end, writing to text has become a big instructional shift and is taking over our schools’ writing programs, simply because it makes the testing cheaper. Your student now hates writing so the state can save money.
Of course, the standards don’t really address the testing. They merely say that students will engage in research and write about it. That, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. If students were allowed to pick their topics and dig in deep, no subject is unworthy of some research writing. If you dig deep into the history of any subject - how it works, its influences, its connections to other areas of knowledge - you will learn a lot very rapidly, and you will write better about what you learned because you actually care. But that is not what I see happening in schools. Because everything (school grades, teacher evaluations, retention and graduation decisions) is based on test performance, schools are teaching to the test, which means they are giving students three short essays on some random subject and asking them to write about them. Some topics are better than others, but no topic could ever be as engaging as writing about what what interests you. In the end, our obsession with testing results in us not even teaching the standards as well as we might be teaching them.
Because writing instruction is now focused mainly on test scores, we have a situation where our Volusia County middle school curriculum maps, as of last year, have middle school students writing, over the course of three years, 9 practice FSA district tests, 3 narrative essays, 2 short stories, 1 expository essay, and no argumentative essays at all, outside of test prep and a couple of speeches. Is there any doubt what our priorities are?
Here is what good writing instruction looks like. Let students choose topics. Let them play with ideas. Give them opportunities to write from life, from their imaginations, and from things they read. Let them learn how to write well from life and from their imaginations before teaching them to write about what they read. You learn about organization, using details, and creating fluent sentences better when you are not burdened with citing text. Teach students how to write well in general, and then let them apply real writing techniques to writing about what they read. And let them chose what they read.
Great writing, or even good writing, never comes from compliance. Compliance to simple writing tricks like formulas, fill-in-the-blank sentences, and silly rules only creates mediocre, formulaic writing habits that can’t really transferred into real-life writing situations. Worse, students believe that the formulas and silly rules are real and continue to follow them into college, where their professors must be like Yoda and tell them to “unlearn what you have learned.” College readiness indeed. A great writing program won’t teach to the test, and won’t hold “writing to text” as a superior form of writing. A great writing program will teach students what real writers do instead of teaching formulas. A great writing program will give students freedom write about what they love and about what frustrates them.
Here’s what real writing instruction can do for students. Reading like writers to observe what writers do makes them stronger, more observant readers. Choosing and refining their own topics gives them the ability to have insight in any writing situation, including on a test. Organizing ideas in a non-formulaic way means they know how to really think about how an essay is organized rather than simply filling in blanks. Writing using vivid real life and imaginary details means they will know how to use details well, and will use them well when writing about what they’ve read, instead of just plugging bits of what they read into their essay at random.
Real writing instruction can make them more creative, and more logical (the two actually go hand in hand). It can help them develop and find interests. It can help them consider their own and others’ points of view and reflect on their lives and issues in the world around them. It can help them develop future stories that lead to real futures. It can make them more thoughtful citizens and possibly better people.
You can have it all - but an obsession with testing actually keeps our scores down. Disengaged students don’t write as well - or even, apparently, show up on testing day. You can’t have great, unengaged writers. Great writing comes only out of engagement. And engaged writers will do well on any test, and probably have fun doing it. When our son took the SAT and got a perfect score, we wondered about his essay. He had always been a really good writer, so we were interested in seeing his "perfect" piece of writing. When the essay arrived via email, we read it. We were expecting his usual great writing, but instead we saw that this “perfect” essay was a piece of drivel. We asked him why he’d written it the way he did. He had looked up what the SAT scorers wanted: many words, and many of those words big words. He had given them that, using words like multifarious, and scored well. He knew how to play the testing game because he had been taught to write for real in the first place. But he never mistook the writing he did for the test to get a score as either real, or quality, writing.
The News-Journal article about students not wanting to write appeared after I had just spent a week writing with students in grades 5 through 12 at Stetson University’s HATS Program. For eight summers now, I have been teaching a week-long fiction writing class where we write a novel in a week. We do research. We brainstorm ideas. We come up with a backstory and plot-synopsis, trying to think logically every step of the way. We divide the outline into chapters, and each student writes two of them. My students spent all of Thursday afternoon and all of Friday simply sitting and writing. They didn’t ask for breaks, and they all wanted to come back next year. Nothing was wrong with writing.
We could be engaging our young writers and making them successful at every type of writing. By instructionally-shifting students into one dull mode of writing and robbing them of the chance to write about what matters to them, we may be ruining a generation of students as writers.
And that’s a bigger problem than not showing up for the test.