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Renee Moore: a research project at a Mississippi community college finds that implementation of the state's high school exit exam in English seems to correlate with poorer student writing skills.
As a parent, I have seen some really questionable practices implemented in response to the transparency of testing. "Writing across the curriculum," not a bad concept on the face of it--attempting to beef up skills through integrating more written work throughout other coursework. In reality, this has led to a phys ed curriculum in my district, proudly announcing that it is aligned to the state standards. Now--the curriculum was written before there were any phys ed state standards--so to what is it aligned? Well, the English standards, of course. A bunch of phys ed folks sat down with the English standards and picked out pieces of things that they thought they could carry out as a part of the phys ed curriculum. I don't want to engage in stereotyping, but these are folks who, as a group, have not exelled in mastering the art of written communication with parents.
Now, this doesn't say that the district does not provide some professional development to beef up the skills of these out of content area teachers. The district has adopted "formula writing" as the means for carrying out its "writing across the curriculum" initiative. This means the essential five paragraph essay. Introduction: four sentences--a thesis statement and three supporting statements. Then write one paragraph that elaborates on each of the supporting statements. Then restate the opening paragraph as a conclusion. Bingo--everyone is a writer. It's not a terrible short-cut if you are looking at say, six weeks in which to prepare a student for the sole objective of passing a test.
But, school systems have far more than six weeks, and far more resources. Students deserve something better. Prior to testing they were getting far worse across the board. Some excelled--some graduated without the ability to write a complete sentence (as evidenced by the number of notes from young teachers who are not quite competent in this area).
It is regrettable that the local secondary system turned down Ms. Moore's offer of conversation and dialogue regarding what she is seeing at the post-secondary level. This could be the beginning of a beautiful relationship. But the excuse of everything being caused by the tests is something we are going to have to give up, if we are going to improve. The reality is that when the tests started to show up areas of weakness, instead of carefully analyzing the resources and means of response, too many shifted into panic mode and tried to find short-cuts to success. Students who have thorough and high quality experience and systematic teaching in writing skills will do well at writing for tests. Yes, they can achieve passable knowledge from "formula writing," apparently. But that trade-off wasn't forced by the test.
Margo/Mom: "I don't want to engage in stereotyping, but these are folks who, as a group, have not exelled [sic] in mastering the art of written communication with parents."
Well, gosh. You can't have this both ways. Either it's a good thing for music, life skills, and physical education teachers (etc.)to model and insist on comprehensive academic proficiency--or it isn't. Physical education teachers who sit for National Board Certification have to develop 40+ pages of writing on exercise physiology, curricular planning and integrating a written assessment into a unit. It's not just throwing out the balls. We want all teachers to demonstrate and demand appropriate literacy skills.
The bigger issue in Renee's excellent commentary is that there is data showing that narrow testing is correlated with narrowed learning gains in writing, for a specific group of young people. There have always been tests. I don't believe Renee is saying that "everything [was] caused by the tests." Pervasive, high-stakes standardized testing does change teaching, however.
We want to continuously assess student growth to inform teaching (and the students themselves)--what we don't want is a limited set of testable skills to dominate curriculum and instruction. Many states were not getting "worse across the board"-- although some education pundits would have the public believe that. The state we're talking about here is Mississippi, however--and Renee's data, as well as her sincere concern for the students she teaches and loves, rings true.
I don't have a lot of problem with Renee's observations--and particularly her account that the response of her district was that they were too pre-occupied with test preparation to receive any valuable feedback from the post-secondary level about the things that their kids were/were not learning that they needed to know in order to succeed. I absolutely believe that she is accurate in describing the response to the test. I also challenge the belief, by any who hold it, that the response is an inevitable and immutable result of testing.
Can you imagine if a student told you that the test made him/her neglect any portion of your teaching that wasn't going to be on the test? This happens frequently, of course, and the adults generally take the time to explain all kinds of things about the value of learning and taking responsibility for one's life.
My guess is that the school's new phys ed curriculum isn't going to do any lasting harm (to either phys ed, or English) because no one will pay any attention to it--there is not test that they are required to take. Teachers are not required to demonstrate adherence to the curriculum. Students are not required to demonstrate any learning in that area.
There is harm, however, in having a slew of teachers in other content areas presenting "formula writing" to students in place of taking an earnest look at what is being taught with regard to writing skills by English teachers. As I pointed out "formula writing" will "get you through the day" in a certain minimalistic kind of way. Choosing to get by with the least amount of education possible, however, is a choice. It is made by the administration and teachers in my district. I don't like it. I expect more.
How wonderful to see two commenters I really admire having such a thoughtful discussion (and sparked by something I wrote!). Margo is absolutely right when she observes: "Students who have thorough and high quality experience and systematic teaching in writing skills will do well at writing for tests." Unfortunately, what we are seeing here and other places around the country is that type of rich instruction is being withheld from the students who most desperately need it--those in low performing, high needs schools. The prevailing (ill)logic here is to resort to low level remediation, drills, and formula writing. This tendency is tied not only to low expectations, but also to the pedagogically incorrect assumption that students can only learn to write well after they have mastered all the grammar rules. Not given the opportunity to apply the grammar and usage rules within the actual practice of intellectually engaging writing, the grammar skills themselves are poorly retained (or lost). The increased threat of job loss to administrators for low performance by students on state tests does seem to correspond with the imposition of more such ineffective teaching practices. The pressure to ratchet up the scores flushes out many of the lower expectations some educators (administrators and teachers) have particularly for poor and minority students.
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