Reading & Literacy

Schools Stress Writing for the Test

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — December 12, 2001 7 min read
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At Los Penasquitos Elementary School in San Diego, students spend a good part of their day putting pen to paper: writing letters and persuasive essays, composing poetry and short stories, and scribbling in journals. Their skills, teachers there say, have progressed steadily in recent years, and children at the 600-pupil K-5 school typically have done well on state tests and those designed by the teachers themselves.

So it came as a shock when nearly all the ordinarily high-achieving students, as well as their peers across the Poway Unified School District, failed to reach proficiency on a new state writing test given last spring. Those results sent teachers on the hunt for curricula and lesson plans to prepare students better for the exam.

“We know that the state test will be either a persuasive essay, a response to literature, or a personal narrative,” said Cynthia Marten, a reading specialist at Los Penasquitos. “Now, teachers are scrambling for how to prepare kids for that [type of test]. We’ll probably end up teaching the three genres pretty well. But it ends up changing the focus of writing from communication to writing for a test.”

Throughout California, and around the country, teachers are responding to the pressure of high-stakes testing by spending more time teaching writing and building written exercises and projects into their lessons. But many teachers, critics say, are simply adapting or reducing their writing instruction to a formula for success on state exams.

“When writing was not on the tests, it was something that some teachers taught well and a lot of teachers didn’t teach,” said Lucy McCormack Calkins, the director of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College, Columbia University. “In a lot of states, state testing has put a spotlight on the teaching of writing. The problem is that ... instead of really good instruction in writing, [too often] it’s test prep in writing.”

The Five-Paragraph Essay

Many California districts have since marshaled their professional-development resources to get teachers grounded in a recipe for instruction that they hope will all but guarantee a good showing by their students on the test. Poway officials are quickly gathering lesson plans and other resources that closely reflect what they expect will show up on subsequent tests.

California’s extended-response writing exams for 4th, 7th, and 10th graders replaced a multiple-choice test. On the new test, for example, 4th graders were given 30 minutes to describe the differences between smooth- skinned frogs and bumpy toads after reading a passage on the topic.

In contrast, the previous test did little to encourage attention to anything beyond the conventions of writing. It required students to select an answer that demonstrated the correct grammar or sentence structure.

“Writing assessment tends to drive instruction in writing,” said George Hillocks, an English professor at the University of Chicago. “In certain states, because of the assessment, teachers teach formulaically; they teach the infamous five- paragraph essay.”

Among many English/language arts teachers, the “five- paragraph essay” is shorthand for dry, methodical writing. The first paragraph describes the topic. It is followed by three paragraphs that outline three themes or points, and a concluding or summary statement.

Mr. Hillocks has studied the state writing assessments in five states: Illinois, Kentucky, New York, Oregon, and Texas. His research is set to be published in a book next spring, The Testing Trap: How Statewide Writing Assessments Control Learning. He contends that the kind of instruction promoted by state assessments is of low quality and of little use to students. “The five- paragraph essay is notable for its lack of thought,” he asserted. “It’s organized ignorance.”

Mr. Hillocks argues that Illinois and Texas have the weakest assessments. The problem, he says, is that they force students to write quickly on a random topic that taps their personal knowledge or experiences but offers little outside information or data.

New York and Oregon require a more thoughtful writing process, in his view. And it is Kentucky’s renowned assessment—with its emphasis on student portfolios and accumulated works in a variety of genres—that is most likely to foster high-quality instruction and real achievement, Mr. Hillocks says.

Tests, however, are not intended to restrict the curriculum, experts say. Unlike the generation of multiple-choice exams, these latest state tests have expanded the repertoires of many teachers, who now introduce a wider variety of writing styles in their lessons, according to Sally Hampton, a senior scholar at the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching in Menlo Park, Calif. But in the worst classrooms, she said, the types of writing emphasized on tests are all that is taught, often through rote drills.

“Once you understand the criteria,” she said, “it can either allow you to see the possibilities, or it can narrow what you do instructionally.” California officials acknowledge that test anxiety has put pressure on teachers to find a quick fix. As writing becomes more important, and more varied writing styles are tested, however, instruction will improve, said Robert Anderson, an administrator in the standards and assessment division of the state education department.

“In the end, excellent writing instruction will lead to high scores on the test,” he said.

In the short term, California officials hope the test will compel schools and teachers to provide at least the basic writing instruction that many struggling students desperately need. “Now, it places an emphasis on low-performing students’ being able to write,” Mr. Anderson said. “Those students have, to some degree, been neglected. But now, the message to teachers is that ... D and F students have got to achieve.”

Research suggests that students who receive good writing instruction tend to perform better on state tests than those whose preparation is narrowly focused on the skills that are to be assessed. Such instruction, experts say, includes a variety of genres, allows time for writing and rewriting, encourages students to write about what interests them, and emphasizes both writing conventions and the creative process.

“Good writing instruction produces good writing,” said Ms. Calkins, the author of The Art of Teaching Writing. “And [students] do well on those tests.”

But such a program can be time-consuming and intimidating for teachers, particularly for those who have placed little emphasis on writing in their lessons and have received minimal, if any, instruction of their own.

In Michigan, New York, Rhode Island, and other states that challenge students to demonstrate their proficiency in composition, Ms. Calkins said, teachers are trying to get beyond the test-prep approach through professional development that takes a broader view of writing instruction.

An independent evaluation of the National Writing Project, scheduled to be released next month by the Academy for Educational Development, a research and policy-analysis group in Washington, found that students’ writing improved significantly and teachers’ instruction changed dramatically as a result of their participation in the intensive writing program.

The federally financed project, based at the University of California, Berkeley, operates through local centers in most states. The centers provide workshops for some 130,000 teachers each year. The programs rarely focus on meeting test requirements.

No ‘Rivalry’

Most teachers, though, tend to spend more time than necessary preparing students to take writing tests, says Stephen N. Tchudi, a professor of English at the University of Nevada-Reno and the author of Alternatives to Grading Student Writing. While recommending that teachers spend some time preparing students for the writing tasks on the state tests and provide practice time, Mr. Tchudi advocates a more comprehensive approach because it will likely allow students to exceed test requirements.

“Most of our research indicates that the broadest and richest preparation in writing will result in the highest test scores,” he said. “Narrow test preparation is not necessarily the kind of writing that will be useful to students.”

At the Pascack Valley Regional High School District in New Jersey, teachers are aware of the constraints testing places on their teaching. Students “have to write within a time frame, and they have to write within the box [provided],” said Patricia Hade, a longtime English teacher at Pascack Valley High School. “They have to practice that.”

Those skills are built into a variety of writing tasks and projects students are assigned, whether in English class, science, mathematics, social studies, or other classes. Students are given time to develop lengthy writing assignments in fiction and nonfiction, but are also hit with quick, timed assignments that force them to synthesize their thoughts on a deadline.

“With the advent of state tests and high-stakes testing, teachers do not have to look at the writing component as a rivalry between creativity and writing skills,” said Edie Weinthal, the humanities supervisor for the 1,500-student district. “You can teach creatively, and at the same time, be practicing for the test.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 12, 2001 edition of Education Week as Schools Stress Writing for the Test

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