Keep Maryland writing

November 05, 2003|By Gail Lynn Goldberg

IT IS a truism of assessment that what gets tested is what gets taught.

Yet the recent decision to eliminate the Maryland Writing Test (MWT), coupled with the demise of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) in 2002, means that at no point in the K-12 experience of students will their writing skill specifically be measured through a statewide, direct assessment.

To be sure, students will be doing a great deal of writing on other tests. Both the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) that replaced MSPAP and the new High School Assessment (HSA) require that students respond to content-based questions by writing short answers. To some, this means that students will continue to "do writing." But there is a considerable difference between pushing a pencil to answer a math, science or reading question and writing as composition - the expression of ideas and information in a coherent and compelling way.

The Maryland Content Standards, which guide curriculum, instruction and assessment across grades in all public schools, address learning to write for a variety of purposes and in a variety of forms. Ideally, therefore, some attention will be given to writing not only in English language arts classrooms but in other subjects as well.

One need not be a cynic, however, to anticipate that without some instrument to assess proficiency in writing and to help identify clear models of what "good enough" and "really good" look like, chances are great that writing will not receive the attention in Maryland that it has for the last two decades. This despite the fact that the importance of writing has lately received much attention nationally, and a writing sample will soon become a mandatory part of the SAT.

Some might argue that the abandonment of the minimum competency standard of the MWT is long overdue. The problem is that without something to replace this assessment, the message to many teachers is that writing just doesn't count the way it used to.

MSPAP contributed in particularly powerful ways to the writing culture in Maryland. Students were expected to write to inform, to persuade and to express personal ideas. They wrote not only reports and essays, but also speeches, stories, plays and poems the likes of the following penned during that test by a third-grader:

I am a child

Smaller than the blue sky

Bigger than an atom

I am lighter than an elephant

Heavier than a Popsicle

Quicker than an ant

Slower than a cheetah

I am older than my new shoes

Younger than my grandpa

How long will I live?

Will I always have friends?

Will I be a baseball player?

I live my life

Making the best of it,

Yet I'm still a child.

What is the likelihood that students in Maryland will continue to learn to write like this? And what can we all do to increase that likelihood? At the crossroads we face, here are several suggestions:

Perhaps most critically, the state Department of Education and local school systems need to encourage conversation about writing instruction. In the absence of a statewide assessment, what do teachers, parents and community members believe students need to learn and be able to do as writers? What forums are or should be available to students and teachers to share student work, to provide models of excellence and resources for ongoing instruction?

Ensure ongoing, high-quality staff development on the teaching of writing. Coupled with this, establish and maintain high standards for teachers, who should be writers, too. Students need to see adults writing, often and well. Not all parents or guardians model this, but teachers can.

Support collaboration among school systems to develop high-quality formative assessment to guide writing instruction within and across grade levels. Assessment need not be statewide and fully standardized to have motivational impact and powerful instructional implications.

Without creating new tests, explore ways to assess writing within existing or evolving subject tests. Writing doesn't have to be sacrificed to respect the trade-offs that are sometimes necessary to create and implement an economical and effective assessment system and deliver valid, reliable and timely results.

No matter what strategies are implemented to maintain Maryland's classroom writing culture, the Board of Education ought not sign off on regulatory changes to terminate the MWT without also signing on to a commitment to keep students writing, and writing well, in classrooms throughout the state.

Gail Lynn Goldberg is an educational consultant on classroom assessment and literacy learning. She lives in Baltimore.

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