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Jason Stanford: Teaching writing wrong

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Jason Stanford
April 7, 2014

If you have a seventh-grader, you know he or she just got done taking a standardized test for writing. The good news is our country’s education policy recognizes writing is a necessary skill in the information era. The bad news is that, because of the way we administer and grade the writing standardized tests, we’d have a better idea of whether our kids can write if we looked at their tests.

The problem is not that we expect our children to learn to write essays. The problem is that we expect these essays to come in a standard format that lends itself to mass-scale scoring and apples-to-apples comparisons. So to really make sure our children never learn to write well, Pearson—the world’s largest testing company—looked to the one place no one would look to for clear, helpful writing—the legal profession.

In Texas and in the 17 states in which Pearson designed the Common Core tests, students took a writing test on a page filled almost entirely by a rectangular box with 26 lines. At the bottom of the page was the warning, “Students may not write outside the box.” You might think 26 lines is an arbitrary limit to place on a student’s thoughts until you realize that each page of a legal pleading is also 26 lines.

These are not the five-paragraph essays we learned with the introduction, three supporting points, and conclusion. Our children—mine included—are being taught that good writing is filling in the box and using all 26 lines.

My seventh-grader took the writing test this week and had to write three essays. One of his prompts was “What are the benefits of laughter?” When he told me what he wrote, he said that he organized his points like a real essay, but he didn’t indent the paragraphs because his teacher told him not to. His essay was a solid block of words.

The problem wasn’t the teacher. Besides being handsome and funny, my seventh-grader is in an honors program. The fault lies with the graders that Pearson hires to evaluate the millions of essays written by 13-year-olds every year. You would like to think that, for the hundreds of millions of tax dollars we pay them every year, Pearson would hire retired teachers, laid-off journalists, or starving graduate students. You would probably also like to believe in the Easter Bunny.

Todd Farley knows better. He wrote a funny insider memoir called “Making the Grades:  My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry.” Because states needed millions of essays graded on unrealistic deadlines, corners were cut. They hired graders off Craig’s List. They hired raging drunks, burnouts and folks who spoke English—badly—as a second language.

In the blur to meet deadlines, essays that used all 26 lines got the better scores, and teachers learned to game the system. When state officials learned what was happening, they passed regulations to ensure that trained professionals had sufficient time to fairly evaluate student essays. And then the Chicago Cubs won the Super Bowl and the Republican Party demanded Obama’s face be carved into Mount Rushmore.

What actually happened is that Pearson, which remains largely unregulated despite effectively running education in our country, programmed machines to grade essays. They promise this will be even cheaper than hiring human morons, and we’ll get the results more quickly.

In 2012, an MIT professor found that an electronic grader designed by the Education Testing Service is just another video game with hidden cheats. Longer essays with bigger words got better grades than succinct, well-argued essays. Worse yet, the computers could not discern truth and assumed any fact was correct. Your child could fill up 26 lines about Obama’s Kenyan birthplace and get a good score. We’re training children to write like lawyers for Fox News.

One of the benefits of laughter is that it helps you accept what the testing industry is doing to our education system, but the joke’s on us. We want to make our children “college and career ready,” but all they’re learning to do is game the system. Great. More lawyers.

Jason Stanford is a Democratic consultant who writes columns for the Austin American-Statesman and MSNBC. He can be reached at stanford@oppresearch.com and on Twitter @JasStanford. His columns are distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons newspaper syndicate.



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