A long time ago, in a High School far, far away…
I remember the Writing Test. No a writing test I took once. I remember the Writing Test. That’s what it was called. I remember being forced to sit in the uncomfortable auditorium seats with those little trays that folded up (and weren’t actually big enough to do anything on) and writing for two hours while the teachers stalked up and down the aisle and across the stage, in case one of us… what? Copied the person next to us? Looked at a cheat sheet? I’m not really sure.
The topic was… Write About Your Future Dream Job.
I’m fairly certain I wrote about becoming a big Broadway star when I grew up. At the time, I did not think my poor singing abilities, lack of grace, and subpar acting skills would hold me back, and so I wrote about how I’d move to New York and probably wait tables in between jobs but that’s fine because Jennifer Aniston lived in that giant apartment in the Village on Friends and she waited tables so I can make it too (See also, truths I’d tell my past self). Anyways, I don’t really remember what exactly I said. After all, that’s not really an argument, or analysis, or even research because we couldn’t look anything up. I do know, however, that two of my friends wrote very different responses. One thought it was funny and wrote about how she wanted to join the circus and be a lion tamer. One completely misread the directions and wrote about he current job at the local ice cream shop.
I also know that all 3 of these papers received high marks.
But, high marks for what? One of them didn’t even answer the prompt correctly!
The Battle Against Standardization
This week for my class readings, we read different Position Statements posed for Writing and English teachers. A common thread that I noted in the readings goes back to some of my previous statements about standardized English teachings. According to the Conference on College Composition and Communication (CCCC)’s Position Statement on Writing Assessments, a written assessment “should elicit from the students a variety of pieces, preferably over a substantial period of time” (“Writing Assessment: A Position Statement”). However, most assessments are high-intensity, timed, assessments of obscure topics that students were unaware of prior to sitting down in the aforementioned uncomfortable auditorium chairs.
Most of the tests are scored based solely on grammar and punctuation, which, as I’ve expressed previously, promotes the problem with students worrying more about the grammar of their paper instead of what they’re trying to say. The 2020 SAT Study Guide even openly admits they are looking for Standard English mechanics:
revising your writing to improve the content and editing your writing to ensure that you’ve followed the conventions of standard written English are likely to be key parts of most projects. The SAT Writing and Language Test is designed to emulate these two tasks, assessing how well you can revise and edit a range of texts to improve the expression of ideas and to correct errors in sentence structure, usage, and punctuation (103).
Remember that scary “English Teacher from the Black Lagoon” type that I mentioned way back when? I think she wrote that. The CCCC also points out that “Standardized tests that rely more on identifying grammatical and stylistic errors than authentic rhetorical choices disadvantages students whose home dialect is not the dominant dialect” (“Writing Assessment: A Position Statement”). This brought to mind one of the other statements we read this week, which is the National Council of Teachers of English’s Statement on Anti-Racism. In that statement, the council urges educators to “promote . . .cultural diversity and expanding linguistic knowledge” (“NCTE Statement on Anti-Racism to Support Teaching and Learning”). Part of promoting diversity in the classroom is recognizing that not everyone is brought up with the same dialect and ways of speaking. Therefore, grading a student’s “writing” by how well they conform to standard conventions goes directly against that mission statement.
Other Methods of Assessment
There are many other ways to assess a student’s writing. For example, the CCCC promotes incorporating preparation for these kinds of tests in the classroom with peer reviews and assessment of the texts (“Writing Assessment: A Position Statement”). To this point, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Writing Center also provides some suggestions for continuing assessment of a student’s writing as opposed to a single high-stakes essay. One thing I liked that this website suggested, although there were many other great ideas, was the idea effectively utilizing a rubric to set specific expectations from the students. Their “A” Paper states that it “clearly and compellingly demonstrates” the ideas, the “form and structure are appropriate for the purpose(s) and audience(s) of the piece,” and so on (“Assessing Students Writing”). I like this concept because this is a concept the professor I’m shadowing this semester utilizes as well. Having a set rubric helps give students an idea of what the professor is looking for outside of grammar, although grammatical errors are often present on rubrics. But they help students see that there is more to think about when writing besides just grammar.
My own personal suggestion for another way to get away from the standardization of written assessments would be to require sample essays of the students, however leave it up to them what they submit. No one piece of writing is going to universally display every student’s talents. One student’s best paper might be the same subject another student completely failed.
Things to Think About…
There are many ways to assess a student’s paper. Not everything is about Perfect Standard English, but we also cannot avoid the inevitable: good grammar is a part of good writing. But it shouldn’t be the main focus. How do you all plan to assess student writing in your classes?
“Assessing Student Writing.” University of Nebraska-Lincoln, https://www.unl.edu/writing/assessing-student-writing#rubrics. Accessed 28 Feb. 2021
SAT Study Guide, E-Book, PDF. 2020.
“Statement on Anti-Racism to Support Teaching and Learning.” National Council of Teachers of English, July 2018, https://ncte.org/statement/antiracisminteaching/. Accessed 28 Feb. 2021.
“Writing Assessment: A Position Statement.” Conference on College Composition and Communication, Nov 2014, https://cccc.ncte.org/cccc/resources/positions/writingassessment. Accessed 28 Feb. 2021.