Why deprive students of useful writing tools on tests?
Education has a habit of presenting students with useful tools and then taking them away at test time.
It’s happening again this year.
If you have a child in public school, chances are he has caught a case of hemorrhagic fever. Ohio high school students, for example, take or prepare to take various state-required course completion tests and College Board advanced level exams, many of which involve writing.
While the content of each writing assessment may be different, one thing is sadly common: students may not be using tools considered fundamental for nearly all working writers.
The tests prohibit students from taking advantage of spell-checking programs, online dictionaries, or online thesaurus. They can’t even use physical dictionaries and thesaurus.
By the way, the old-school plural of “thesaurus” is “thesaurus,” which I looked up online while typing this article, which students would be prohibited from doing on a writing test.
In some cases, even typing, a common typesetting method since the late 1800s, is prohibited. This, in an education system that prioritized typed work for decades, and was so high-tech just two years ago that teachers were delivering programs via Zoom links.
But when the high-stakes tests roll around, it’s back to the Stone Age.
Just as unfortunate as the banning of various lexicographical tools is the failure to give students time to do more than rudimentary review. No more peer reviews and thoughtful reassessment of problematic sentences. No one can phone a friend on the AP English Language trial, although peer assessment is an integral part of this program throughout the year.
There are purists – I know you’re there, I can feel your hot breath on my neck – who argue that spell checkers and review time lead to end products that don’t reflect what students know, but are more a function of the skill with which they take advantage of various resources.
But when teachers and schools prioritize these resources as useful (which they are) and teach with them throughout the year (as they should), why aren’t students allowed to use them when high-stakes tests? What’s the point of preaching that the essence of good writing is rewriting if students don’t have time to do it on a test, if the first draft they’ve been taught is not a starting point, becomes the finished product?
If we trace the case for traditional paper-and-pencil samples far enough, we discover a rarely expressed fear: some unspecified future day, students will be faced with a writing task where they cannot use technology, leaving them naked with their many handwriting flaws exposed.
A similar argument has been made for many years to keep students away from calculators. It is a strange belief that their survival may one day depend on finding 18% of the 287 with only paper and pencil. But if I live in such a world, perhaps one where civilization itself has been wiped out, I’m probably too busy killing giant, mutated crickets with a rusty shovel to be too preoccupied with math.
Seriously, though, I understand that writing is produced for many reasons and under many conditions – text messages, emails, research essays, novels, and timed plays among them.
Some writing samples are intended to assess basic writing skills, while others are intended to determine more sophisticated skills. All timed trials are considered first drafts and are evaluated as such, but so what?
One of the goals of education is to produce more students who excel in writing rather than identifying those who barely pass the bar. Given this, grading writing portfolios instead of timed writing samples is much more beneficial for students and schools. Let a panel of evaluators review each student’s efforts to write arguments, analysis, and stories, as well as examples of the writing process from first draft to final draft.
Yes, it would take longer, with a much more subjective and open to bias evaluation process. These are issues that need to be resolved.
Admittedly, slapping an arbitrary number on a try is much easier and more efficient. Yet producing good writing is rarely easy or effective. Why should the evaluation process be accepted?
And if those arguments aren’t convincing, then let those who would be horrified to send even a simple email without using a spell checker be the first to share unedited text with the world, which we ask students to do. all the time on the tests.
Crickets, again, not the giant mutant kind.
Contact Chris at [email protected] On Twitter: @cschillig.