Education Opinion

When Honors Students Fail Writing Tests

By Morris Freedman — December 10, 1986 8 min read

Can our schools ever successfully teach and test writing skill? Or is proficiency in written English as near impossible to define, mandate, inculcate, and measure effectively as any other virtue or talent?

Editors, publishers, and critics every day distinguish good from bad writing. Business and government worry endlessly about efficient communication. Occasionally, Washington has tried to legislate it. Yet elementary and high schools, colleges and universities, cannot agree on what good writing is, how to teach it, or how to measure it.

Almost half our states now test high school students on their writing. Some either require or plan to require students to pass such a statewide test before graduating. So far, however, the results have not delighted students, teachers, parents, legislators, or school officials.

The Maryland experience provides ample evidence of the problem. In Montgomery County--one of the country’s wealthiest and most enlightened school systems, most of whose high-school graduates go on to college--10 percent of English honors students failed the state’s writing test in its early period of administration. Throughout the state, one of four high-school juniors failed. To meet the challenges and protests, the state had to declare a moratorium on the test until 1989.

Among those who failed was a 15-year-old 10th grader in one of the outstanding schools in the state. An English honors student, she began writing poetry when she was 7. Her teachers regularly graded her A or B. Another honors student, who wrote short stories and poetry, failed the test twice.

What are we to make of a test that honors students fail? Might the test actually be at fault, as parents, teachers, students, and some officials have insisted? Or might we be witnessing some deep-seated confusion about “good” writing and how to discern it? Is there something wrong with the test or the way we read the results?

Here is an example of the kind of writing considered to be worth the highest rating in the Maryland test. It is reproduced with no change in spelling or punctuation.

Dear Greg,

Recently I went to see Led Zeppelin in concert at Washington. We arrived early and the seats were filling up quick. You could feel a mood of excitement in the air and the clock headed for seven. Finally the lights went out and all was dark and quiet. Suddenly I heard a tremendous crash of sounds as lights flashed about the whole place. the band was pretty radical the music was so loud and it was pretty thrashable they played all my favorite songs the conceit lasted three and a half hours. When the last song was playing there was a sad mood in the air like someone, had died. We were all sorry to see it end so soon. I enjoyed it greatly Maybe we can go to a concert together in the future sometime

Yours truly, Mike

Obviously, we must rethink our notions of what writing tests measure and of good writing itself. My experience as a grader of such tests, as well as that in teaching writing to college students, may cast some light on the issue.

For a number of years I served as one of several hundred readers of the writing sample of the Scholastic Aptitude Test. We used to meet for a week in the ballroom of an Atlantic City hotel. To bring the widely assorted English teachers and professors from allover the country, from private and public schools, from junior and senior high schools through graduate school, to a consensus on standards, the chief reader periodically duplicated typical or problematical examples and distributed them for scoring and discussion. Remarkably enough, most of us quickly agreed about whether a paper should be scored low, 1 or 2, or high, 3 or 4.

But one paper produced a furor. It was a vivid, imaginative, powerfully poetic description, written with virtually no punctuation or capitalization and filled with misspellings. Many of the teachers gave it a 3 or 4; the chief reader and his staff averaged a bare 2.

Clearly, many readers were rewarding the student’s originality and articulateness. We allowed, generously, for the testing situation and welcomed an interesting paper in the avalanche of mediocre ones. The supervising readers, more experienced in evaluating the S.A.T. samples, were more mindful, as the chief reader put it, of the nearly frightening obliviousness in the paper to the most elementary amenities of written English. He shared our sense of the brilliance of the text but was much troubled by its chaos. He wondered whether it might even suggest some personality disturbance! He cautioned us to be alert to what such extremes of unruly writing might signify.

All of us, teachers and laypersons, know too well the tendency of many English teachers to insist on rote exercises in teaching writing. Inexperienced teachers, or those with too many students, in simple self-defense, incline to put a premium on quantifiable details.

They measure the width of margins in papers their students write; they count the number of crossings out, misspellings, spaces between lines, and the total number of words. Some still drill students not to split infinitives or to begin sentences with conjunctions or end them with prepositions: simplistic taboos that have nothing to do with good writing. (“This is the kind of nonsense up with which I will not put,” declared Winston Churchill, master of English prose.) Teachers encourage students to use big and fancy words, however inappropriate, not small or plain ones, however effective. High-school writing ends up a motor skill, not an intellectual one.

One result is that college English becomes a process of brainwashing as teachers try to get students to cleanse their minds of irrelevant constraints and say what they mean. Preparing for the Maryland writing test may require a similar effort at mental hygiene. Persons who complained about the high score for the less-than-ideal piece of writing quoted above felt that it did not abide by plain, old-fashioned rules.

I would not myself have scored that genial missive a 4, but I would have given it a 3, that is, a high rather than a low grade. It conveys the scene quickly and vividly, and rather movingly catches the closing atmosphere of the concert. However haltingly, the student convincingly describes a recognizable experience.

On the other hand, I cannot ignore the lapses in punctuation and capitalization, even though the effort was a first draft. A student properly aware of periods, commas, and capitals would instinctively not have committed the more flagrant errors. Such a failing alone testifies to a lurking inattentiveness in reading and writing, which could be a major handicap in other schoolwork and in a career. The sample seems to me overgraded. Good writing should not exclude precision and basic good form.

Few experienced teachers (or editors or publishers) regard absolute adherence to rules as indispensable in good writing. While I would have voted to give William Faulkner the Nobel Prize for literature, I would have failed him in freshman English for not writing coherent, correct sentences consistently, as one is normally required to do in that course. Obviously, I would also have excused him from taking it.

Critics of the Maryland test were indignant that some of those who failed were long-time composers of poems or stories. But we know that children rarely grasp the complexities of literature. We have had few child literary prodigies. Skill in careful writing or reading comes with experience and maturity.

Children who do rhymes or free verse when they are 7, and continue simply to play with poetry through junior and senior high school, are not likely to know or care about the subtleties of literature or the proprieties of prose. They are like artists who would paint masterpieces without learning to use a brush or going to a gallery. Their teachers encourage them to indulge in unfocused, uncultivated “creative” impulses.

Our schools define “good” writing in extremes. Some teachers want it to be mechanically precise: every word impeccably spelled; all punctuation immaculate; the vocabulary polysyllabic and recondite; and the penmanship exemplary. “Neatness” counts heavily. Others emphasize originality and imagination, grateful to find worthy content, however uncontrolled, among the excesses of cliches, incoherence, and flatness.

These extremes, in the freshman year of high school or in the senior year of college, often derive from the same cause: an inadequate apprehension, by teachers and students, of good writing in context, which can range from the correct and dull, as in legal documents, to the inventive and fanciful, as in Shakespeare, Faulkner, and Joyce. Teachers often teach, and students study, composition in a vacuum empty of sensible and relevant reading.

The Maryland writing test, and the responses to it, may tell us as much about the teachers of the students who took it as about the students themselves. One summer I taught a class of high-school teachers. When they examined Robert Frost’s “Birches,” they concentrated on botany or biography or on rhyme scheme, alliteration, and symbolism. They hunted for symbols in “Hamlet” and Huckleberry Finn. They preferred to do almost anything with a text than read it with attention and sensitivity.

High-school English, especially in recent years, has tended to separate literacy in writing from literacy in reading. Too many high-school graduates read as superficially and mechanically as they write. More to the point, they rarely connect the two activities. When they do develop discipline in mechanical skills like spelling and grammar, they often neglect meaning and style. Students must learn to blend manner and matter, to integrate what they write with how they write.

We must teach serious, informed reading before we can encourage and expect serious writing. Until more teachers understand that writing cannot be taught in a vacuum empty of careful, attentive, and sensitive reading, it is futile to expect that students will learn to write as efficiently and effectively as writing tests expect them to do, and as they will have to do in life.

A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 1986 edition of Education Week