Writing tests put students on assembly line

February 06, 2004|By Michael Corbin

IN HIS famous essay "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell made the argument that "modern English is full of bad habits" and that in getting rid of these bad habits we perhaps could think more clearly and thereby improve, in no small measure, our body politic.

Erstwhile educational reformers in Maryland and nationwide have amended this to a belief - for student writers in public high schools - that we can design an appropriate standardized writing test, teach a particular formula for writing for the test and at the high school level produce students who can write and think more clearly and hence become a more productive citizenry.

Defenders of high-stakes testing in Maryland and elsewhere share the noble sentiment that high expectations and assessable standards are what will improve educational outcomes. Some of the more candid defenders will acknowledge that this will lead inevitably to schools and classrooms that teach to the test.

Some argue that such conscribed pedagogy is not necessarily a bad thing given the impoverished level of performance we have seen from many high schools, particularly those serving inner-city students. Indeed, some argue that teaching to the test is precisely the point.

But what is not regularly discussed is the subtle and yet profound degree to which our testing regimes in their very success have fundamentally limited for many students the definitions of things such as writing the English language. In our hopeful goal of demanding improvement for student writing we have, in fact, regularly produced limited thinking and a sense of repulsion to the act of writing. With such limited thinking and repulsion, the low test scores that bedevil us should not be surprising. Perversely, such scores then drive us to teach ever more directly to formula.

Take the Maryland Functional Writing Test and the writing portions of the Maryland School Performance Assessment Program (MSPAP) as a case in point.

This year, the functional test, like the MSPAP before it, was phased out. Yet thousands of students were drilled for untold hours to produce the formulaic writing that was recognized as desirable for these tests. Now I don't mean formulaic in a completely disparaging way. Rather, what happens in an English classroom with exceedingly finite resources and time, combined with all the noble sentiments and attendant pressures of increasing test scores, is a disturbing reliance on formula to the exclusion of anything else. For students, the formula becomes writing per se, an outcome that is then often defined as successful instruction.

As an example, ask a ninth- or 10th-grader - veterans of the pedagogy of previous testing regimes - in a Baltimore public school to write a standard five-paragraph essay. Any topic will do. Those students will, with little variation, produce a first sentence that is declarative and begins with the first-person pronoun. "I am about to write an essay on ... " The last paragraph will begin, "I have just written an essay on ... "

What is striking here is not the formula, or some aesthetic or critical appraisal of this approach to the five-paragraph essay. Rather, what is breathtaking is the ubiquity and persistence of the writing formula, whether the writing assignment is for a now-defunct test or not.

Students wear these habits of mind and formulaic associations like intellectual scars. They carry these scars around because, contrary to the disparaging view of many, our students do in fact learn what we teach them. Testing regimes become more refined, instruction is bent toward producing ever more specific intellectual associations. For example, writing as such becomes writing declarative sentences that begin with a first-person pronoun.

The surgeon wields his scalpel for the benefit of his patient. The scar is a mere necessary evil to improvement. The educator, wielding blunt instruments of instruction, produces a less beneficent lesion. We can hope that the new High School Assessment testing regime in Maryland is a more precise instrument.

"Modern English prose," Mr. Orwell wrote, "consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house." And for Mr. Orwell, our descent into prefabrication was both a reflection and reinforcement of our more general social and political descent.

Michael Corbin teaches ninth-grade English at Patterson High School in Baltimore.

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