Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Standardized tests can't measure great writing

By Walter Bowne These writers may have all failed a standardized test for any number of "infractions." Sandra Cisneros: "My grandmother."

By Walter Bowne

These writers may have all failed a standardized test for any number of "infractions."

Sandra Cisneros: "My grandmother."

Michael Kaufman: "This story is about prejudice and stupidity. My own."

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: "But this is not the way out."

Fragments. One-sentence paragraphs. Use of dialogue. Too much voice. Not directly answering the prompt. Use of contractions.

As a teacher of journalism, composition, and rhetoric for almost two decades, I spend the first semester reteaching writing. The problem? Standardized testing forces monochromatic writing.

Students have largely been taught to write cookie-cutter. The word standardized means "made uniform," and as Einstein said, standardization makes for great automobiles but lousy human beings. Uniforms look great on the Yankees but not on compositions.

Professional examples of amazing writing defy their standardized "education." Transitions are "First, second, third." You are never to begin an essay with and or but. Paragraphs always need at least four or five sentences - no more, no less.

I share my own writing. I share my first draft, and then I reveal my edits and a published story. I even have them hack a way through a new draft. I show that while I know the rules, I also know when to break the rules. This is called narrative risk. It's what separates those who just throw words on paper and those who manipulate the power in words.

Teachers have been teaching to the test for eons now. The producers of tests offer expensive manuals to teachers, but the best manuals for writing exist in the New Yorker and the New York Times and the Atlantic . . . or, surprise, in the local newspaper.

Another problem arises when students need to propose and defend a thesis. They want prompts. They struggle to propose an original thesis. There is always a prompt. But no one gave me a prompt for this essay. No one gave Melville a prompt for Moby-Dick. That was, perhaps, Nathaniel Hawthorne's influence.

The problem continues with generating examples to defend the thesis. The process is long, laborious, and oftentimes glorious. It just takes time.

Most of the time, too, it hurts me to assist my daughters with their writing. I use model essays and speeches, books on composition and rhetoric, even Aristotle's The Art of Rhetoric, to guide instruction. I have my daughter Nancy read about various ways to effectively begin an essay, with historical anecdotes or personal anecdotes; with a startling claim or humor; with irony or fact. But she says she will get in trouble because she does not respond to the "prompt" in a direct manner. "My teacher will get mad," she said.

So all of my instruction gets canned for a canned assessment. And a good place for such an essay is in the can - the trash can.

My daughter knows she doesn't want cookie-cutter. She wants to find her voice, her style, her fingerprints, but individualized voices do not exist in this era of "standardization," where all individual prints vanish.

Writers know the secret: practice, practice, practice. Failure, patience, revision, failure, time, revision. But such things have no place in standardized testing.

I may have been a poor quiz taker, but I thrived as a writer. And I'm a better teacher because I know that certain measures only show narrow aspects of knowledge and understanding. It's like a soccer player who only practices an hour a month. Writers need to write. Soccer players need to run. I forget who said that I don't know what I think until I read what I wrote.

After all, writing is a tool, like a shovel.

Standardized tests exist in an artificially timed window that rarely exists for writers (or readers) in the outside world.

In college, a research paper may take one student 10 hours, while another student may need 30. In the kitchen, I could make an omelet in five minutes, while it would take my wife 10. (She is neater and makes a tastier omelet.)

Even newspaper writers facing a midnight deadline have time to sip a coffee, reread, and revise. But what SAT, Advanced Placement, or other test evaluators judge are student drafts written on the spot. Some students are good at this; they are quick out of the gate. Most others need time. They need "critical distance."

Some of my best writers, who have won local and national awards for their work, have scored poorly on AP and SAT writing prompts because of the timed aspect. I tell them, "Ernest Hemingway and John Steinbeck and Edith Wharton never wrote under duress or under the clock. You know you're a better writer than what this measures. You're more than your number. And just who is measuring you?"

It's one of the reasons, I believe, that the College Board has made the SAT essay optional. The University of Pennsylvania no longer requires the essay. The essay does not mirror what actually happens in college, and it's also very expensive to grade.

I recall what Maya Angelou writes in her essay, "Momma, the Dentist, and Me": "I prefered, much preferred, my version."

I'll take personality and individuality any day. As I recall from the opening of Fahrenheit 451, "If they give you ruled paper, write the other way." After all, writing is an act of rebellion. Just ask Thomas Jefferson - who didn't write the Declaration of Independence in half an hour.

Walter Bowne is a writer who lives in Cherry Hill.