Writing A Wrong

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Computer-savvy students shouldn't have to write with pencils.

The standardized writing test, one of education's oldest forms of torture, has become even more painful in recent years. Last fall, I felt the suffering of the 6th graders at our middle school as they pored over their state-mandated exam. Many of them normally write on a computer, both at home and at school, and after experiencing the ease and speed of touch typing, they were frustrated that they now had to write with something so crude as a pen.

"Give me a break," muttered one 10-year-old girl in disgust. I have no doubt that she scored worse on the test than she would have writing on a computer. I would have, too. Indeed, I wouldn't even have tried. Like that girl, I think the pen cramps the mind as well as the hand.

Yet handwritten tests are still the norm. To my knowledge, no state has recognized that many students use computers to compose. These computer-era students welcome writing with pen and paper about as much as they would using the clay tablet and stylus, but most policymakers haven't made the leap to the modern age.

Testmakers' adherence to handwritten tests suggests that they don't yet know that virtually all students love to write with computers--and are powerfully motivated to write better. I'm a former English and writing teacher, and it was easy to see how much students enjoy composing at the keyboard. Words flow through fingertips and pop on the screen. There, they beg to be fussed over, reworked, and moved around. Revision is so easy with a computer that students find it a natural and even pleasant part of the writing experience. They work longer and harder to finish a piece than they did when they wrote the old-fashioned way.

The computer also liberates kids to see writing as a seamless process. Revisions occur constantly along the way to the printer. As I shoulder-surf around the computer lab to read students' drafts, I remind them to listen to their nattering writer's voice: There is always a better choice of word, a better way to compose a sentence, and a better way to organize a paragraph. From the time kids first touch the keyboard, revision is the focus. "Writers know that writing is revision," I remind them. "Sit Shakespeare down in front of a computer, and he'd revise every play he ever wrote. Writing is never finished, even when it's published." Having heard those lines before, the kids smile and invite me to help as chief writing coach.

I admit that I don't know how many students routinely use computers for writing. But I am certain that more and more do so every single day.

Students know that the pen cramps the mind as well as the hand.

Still, the old-fashioned handwritten tests prevail. Apparently, testmakers have not figured out how to capitalize on the fact that computers motivate students to write. That's a shame; it's an axiom that motivated students produce better work. In the computer era, the pen and paper sorely miss the mark.

Some argue that we must insist on handwritten drafts because some school districts can't stock their classrooms with computers. That's true: I know districts that have yet to make well-equipped computer labs routinely accessible to students.

In the meantime, though, states should offer technology-rich districts the option of using computers for their standardized writing tests. Because revision is the essence of good writing, the essays students produce on the computer could raise writing standards statewide. What's more, by providing such an option, states might prod districts to buy more computers and make them available for student use.

I am utterly convinced that handwritten tests do not accurately measure the quality of kids' writing. And they do not reflect reality for many of today's students. That's an irony, and one that did not escape that 10-year-old girl in my class. "Give me a break," she muttered in frustration.



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