As I read an article in USA Today last spring on students’ poor writing skills, I was amazed—no, astounded—to see that the National Assessment of Educational Progress, in its report on the “health” of 4th and 8th graders’ writing abilities, had given such a low score to the unnamed student’s essay that was a sidebar to the article. I give that essay here in its entirety:
There are similarities and differences between people and dogs. One way they are similar is that they both can walk. Furthermore, both are mammals. They also both have noses and parents. Finally, both have hair.
One difference is dogs have four legs whereas people have two. In addition, they have tails. However, we do not. We have short noses, but they have long noses. Finally, dogs don’t talk whereas people do.
Well, now, I’ve taught at a couple of they-shall-go-nameless universities and, believe me, I’ve seen some bad writing. So I hope you’ll also please believe me when I say there were precious few of my students who wouldn’t have been shown a thing or two by this 8th grader’s essay.
One thing this young writer’s work showed me was a lot of good, old-fashioned spunk—chutzpah, if you will. It also demonstrated the ability to stay on track with a central theme, not to wander irrelevantly and aimlessly and endlessly down multiple primrose paths—a talent that’s of course applicable to a great many other of life’s aspects, in addition to writing. The youngster’s essay was very well organized, too, I thought, and made its points quite succinctly—a not inconsiderable blessing in and of itself, I’d say.
Finally, the essay contained not a little humor—a quality of American thought and writing I find is in distressingly short supply these days.
On balance, then, it’s my considered opinion that this young writer’s essay very definitely did not deserve the lowly two on the one-to-six scale the NAEP folks graded it on.
As a matter of fact, the young writer’s work which the powers-that-be at NAEP considered a sample of very poor writing is work that I bet Woody Allen would say wasn’t bad bananas, really. And about all I can see Mark Twain adding to it would be something to the effect that “people” is the only species that blushes—or needs to. I also imagine Ernest Hemingway giving this young writer’s work a much higher grade, too. Presume to think he’d get at least a small grin from its one-cylinder pith, its....its wham-bamness.
By the way, Unnamed Young Writer, whoever you are, you oughta send some of your stuff over to the folks at Saturday Night Live. I’m serious! They, more often than not, can spot good writing, even if the folks at NAEP can’t.
A version of this article appeared in the September 05, 1984 edition of Education Week as Undiscovered Talent