Monday, August 29, 2005


The educrats were all gushing last week over the results of the statewide writing assessment. You can see the scores for the various districts on

The statewide average score was announced as 86%, which sounds like a “B” . . . except you have to remember that this isn’t an objective test given by a neutral, third-party outsider qualified to truly analyze writing skills. And the scores don’t mean what we think they mean.

Instead, each district sets its own “standard” for “proficiency,” but “proficiency” doesn’t mean you’re a crackerjack writer. It just means you can meet the standard – the minimum – the baseline. So if the writing sample is peppered with misspellings and run-on sentences, but displays what the scorer thinks is a nice “voice” and a unique approach, it’ll get a good grade.


It’s also important to note that the students are being assessed on a short personal essay, responding with personal opinion and expression to a “prompt” from the state. That’s soooooo easy. Think about that, compared to an assessment in which they have to craft a piece of writing based on content-rich text that they have to read, comprehend, think about, and explain and expound upon.

So these assessments have no basis in reality for measuring how well students are going to be able to do college work, or perform business writing. I mean, how many times in a college classroom or a workplace are you asked to write a paper or a memo on how you FEEL about SUNSHINE?!?

It also has to be noted that we don’t see any work samples, so we can’t judge for ourselves how accurate or inflated the scores might be. I assessed writing once for District 66, and I was pretty appalled; I doubt the scorers on these statewide assessments included many professional writers. We don’t know the qualifications of the people doing the assessing, so the scores they give might be suspect.

Also, across the country with these statewide writing assessments, the trend has been that the first year, the “scores” are terrible, and everyone gets in a tizzy and runs around asking for more money. But the next year they’re a little better, and by the third year, the educators are getting warm and fuzzy headlines on how wonderfully the kids are doing with their writing. It looks as though that’s what’s happened here.

Meanwhile, all that’s happened is that teachers have mastered how to teach to those minimum standards. They haven’t REALLY helped make the kids more proficient writers – just able to comply with the “specs.”

I think we should do away with the whole thing, because it’s pointless, and instead encourage districts to take up a simple, common-sense, inexpensive strategy like this one described in today’s educational advice column:


Better Writing: ‘A Page Per Year’ Plan

Q. What needs to be done to help students become better writers?

Writing instruction has “gone soft” in recent years, as teachers have aimed more toward creativity and expression than research, conventions and organization.

It’s apparent that writing about one’s feelings and relationships, or offering one’s opinions on a current topic in five paragraphs, have not done the job of preparing students for college. Up to 65% of two-year college students are in remedial English classes, and up to 34% of four-year college students need that intervention after an expensive K-12 education. The same need for retraining in writing goes in the workplace, where a great deal of money has to be spent by corporations to make up for what students have not been taught.

If research term papers are required in colleges, and good-sized reports in companies and in the public sector, it seems fairly simple to assume that the best preparation at the high school level for these tasks would be to have students write a research paper or two and prepare a major report or two. Yet a study done for The Concord Review in 2002 found that while 95% of high school teachers thought research papers wereimportant or very important, 81% never assign a 20-page paper and 62%never assign a 15-page paper of the sort students may be asked for in college.

If schools want to improve students’ ability to do the sort of writing that they will need in college and at work, they should undertake the Concord Review’s Page Per Year Plan. This would assign a one-page paper to each first grader, to write about something other than themselves, and add a page each year, so that 6th graders would attempt a six-page research paper, and 10th graders a 10-page one, and so on, until every single 12th-grader could come to know more about her subject than anyone else in her class by writing a 12-page research paper.

The plan is like good writing: it’s simple, it’s easy to remember, and it works!

Homework: See more good advocacy for writing on

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