Thursday, July 23, 2009

State writing test produces “Stepford Writers”

In Florida, 4th grade (which I taught for several years) is the Year of FCAT Writing. We spend months feverishly preparing our kids to prewrite, organize, draft, and revise a 4-5 paragraph essay, which must be on topic, descriptive, creative, and mechanically correct… in 45 minutes. Keep in mind that these little guys are NINE YEARS OLD.

Since the advent of the test (I was one of the first batch of test-takers, with the 8th grade version) teachers figured out that the easiest way to get high scores was to teach their kids formula writing. After all, some of our most creative and effective writers scored low on the test because they didn’t have a conclusion (too busy writing to notice that time was almost up) or because they panicked (no time for emotion-- this is FCAT!). So—make sure they get in elements A, B, and C (and D-M or so) and they’ll “pull a 4.” Creativity? Well, as long as they toss in few similes, some onomatopoeia… maybe they’ll get up to a 5. Creativity is a luxury during FCAT writing.

So it was no surprise to me when I saw this article about elementary schools being warned for teaching their kids… formula writing.

PALM BEACH COUNTY - The same phrases kept appearing on FCAT essays by numerous fourth-graders in Palm Beach, Broward and 10 other county school districts: "I ran as fast as wild fire," "Poof!", "In the blink of an eye," and "Now you can clearly see" are just a few of the common word choices noticed by scorers this year.

Guess what? Teachers often have lists of descriptive and organizational phrases kids can use. Often these are generated by the kids themselves and stay up on the board all year, being added to when some comes up with a new one. We take them down during the tests, of course. However, they provide a quick mental shorthand for test-stressed kids—“I ran…” (insert remembered simile here) “as fast as wildfire!” Are you going to penalize kids for using clichés? Maybe the teachers at these schools went a little too far with this, although clearly not far enough to warrant anything more than a hand-slap and some embarrassing press.

What surprised me was that the Education Deparment was shocked, SHOCKED to find out that kids were being taught “template writing” (which, by the way, is not the same thing as a bunch of kids using the same simile or concluding phrase.)

In a November analysis from the state Education Department . . . cited the danger that students would become "Stepford Writers. They may look like writers, act like writers, think they're writers, but they are really task completers -- practicing for FCAT Writing."

So using a phrase like “Now you can clearly see” means that the student’s writing isn’t original? What, and using “in conclusion” or “to summarize” instead would have been original? The Education Department wouldn’t have cared if there was just a tad more variation (translation: teachers, make your phrase lists longer). FCAT writing has been producing “Stepford Writers” for fifteen years with no sign of stopping. Moreover, it’s producing Stepford Writers who HATE TO WRITE.

If we want a test with any kind of authenticity, let’s allow the kids to pick their topics. Even a choice of two or three would be better than none. Let’s give them more time, maybe two hours or even stretch the test over two days the way some states do. Let’s honor our students’ different learning and processing styles by giving them time to reflect and revise.

More than that, let’s bring down the stakes, so teachers can spend time on something other than FCAT during their writing instruction. Let’s allow 4th grade and 8th grade and 10th grade students to do REAL WRITING, in multiple stages, the way most of us did in school and the way we teachers were taught to in our education classes. Let’s revive the lost art of the Final Draft. Let’s give our kids time to savor and enjoy writing again.

Until that happens, Florida Education Department, don’t pretend surprise when kids churn out formulaic writing.

1 comment:

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