What Impact Does Standardized Essay Tests Have on Writing?

standardized essay tests
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It is inevitable. Most teachers will eventually cave in and teach to the test. They learn to play the game. Understanding what all is at stake makes all the difference. The stakes are extremely high for students, teachers, administrators, and the school as a whole.  Teachers and administrators can lose their jobs; students can fail to be promoted, or graduate and schools can be closed down.  These are the realities of the high-stakes testing era.

  This is the culture we live, a time when testing is king

Sadly, writing has not escaped these perils. Many states have essay components within some of their standardized testing.  A decade ago standardized testing was almost exclusively multiple choice. Since then essay style questions have slowly crept into the equation because of their ability to test for breadth of knowledge and almost exclusively eliminate guessing.  An essay allows us to assess exactly what students know and the degree to which they know it. 

Lee Griffin, who maintains a blog at Collaborative Online Assessments, summarized the issue very well:

“Teachers desperate to improve scores, often clustered in the neediest schools with the most at-risk students, begin drilling on essay tests. They give students assignment after assignment under test conditions: write about a topic you've never heard of before and don't care about; don't read, search the internet, or talk to anyone to learn about it; have no real purpose for writing anything; and no sense of who you're writing for.

How on earth can we expect to prepare good writers with that kind of instruction? It's likely that what students take away from such lessons is that writing is boring, meaningless, and hateful.”

The Importance of Teaching Writing

This comes at a time when teaching formal writing is perhaps more important than ever.

  The advent of texting and 140 character limits has naturally diluted the quality of writing that students are exposed to.  Students need to be taught and exposed to all the intricacies that writing has to offer.  Writing in its purest form is a powerful, accurate, and creative expression of ideas. 

Writing can also allow us to demonstrate how much we know about a given topic potentially sharing that expertise with other people. The best writers are able to connect naturally with other people.  Their writing seemingly draws the reader in and keeps them wanting more.  A good writer can transcend a topic making it more attractive than what it necessarily is.  They have a gift for spinning words in such a way that it resonates with readers. Griffin states, “What separates a bumbling, ineffective writer from a polished, powerful writer is not just an intro, three points, a conclusion, and accurate spelling, It's the ability to connect with readers about whatever the subject is. This takes much effort and practice.”

How Standardized Essay Tests Limits Students

There is no denying that writing as it is described above needs to be taught in schools everywhere.  Students should be continuously exposed to a wide variety of writing methodologies.

  One of the greatest attributes in writing is that styles vary tremendously from writer to writer.  This variance is one thing that makes writing special.  It is why you can have several news outlets covering the same story, with each producing a compelling piece with a somewhat different perspective. 

Standardized writing limits variety. It boxes students in by giving them a fixed set of rules that restricts creativity and vision and connections with readers. When writing is included within standardized testing, teachers are going to teach directly to the test. All of their efforts are going to be geared towards having their students produce the perfect standard, five-paragraph essay, with an introduction, conclusion, and three body paragraphs covering the most important aspects of the topic.

  This style becomes engrained in students, and it limits the type of writer they can become. Every student becomes a writing robot in a sense. 

Students are limited by a lack of exposure to other essential types of writing.  Meaningful writing of any type is thrown by the wayside once testing makes its way into the fold.  Students no longer are allowed or taught to write creative pieces that are fun, inventive, and imaginative. Journaling, a critical outlet for individual expression of emotions, has become virtually extinct.  Poetry, arguably one of the greatest and purest forms of prose, is lost on this generation of students. 

What Else Is Wrong with Standardized Essay Test

The scoring of standardized essay testing leaves much to be desired. First of all, even with the inclusion of a rubric, scoring can be described as minimally objective at best. Accurate and consistent scoring is often elusive. Even when each student essay is scored by two scorers, rates of inter-rater reliability are not impressive. 

Making the process more complicated is that the teacher has not been trained to score an essay.  They may have a copy of the rubric, but without the proper training, their scoring of practice essays is arbitrary at best.  Often times the components that they are looking for do not jibe with what the scorers hired and trained by the vendor will be looking for.  When teachers score student essays, the feedback they provide may not be in line with what the vendor is looking for.

One the most egregious components of a standardized essay test is the lack of feedback provided to the student.  The scoring reports are vague and arrive several months after the student has taken the exam.  This does nothing to help the student grow and improve as a writer which arguably does a disservice to the process as a whole.

How Writing Should Be Taught

Writing is a demanding intellectual activity that takes time and practice to perfect.  In her blog, Griffin writes, “We don't become good writers merely doing exercises because we have to.

We have to have a little passion to stretch ourselves and get experience in many different situations for it to become natural and accomplished.” Writing should be taught balanced between several different forms of prose and many different situations. Focus should not be given to a singular area, but rather teachers should strive to develop well-rounded writers capable of expressing themselves creatively, vividly, and succinctly through a variety of methods.

Writing should be taught in both independently and interdisciplinary ways among the other core subject areas.  It must be purposeful in nature and inclusive of topics about which the students are passionate. Students must be given consistent and timely feedback. They should be taught to edit, revise, and rewrite their pieces using that feedback. Furthermore, students must be taught that the scoring of writing is often arbitrary and what one person sees as a weakness, may be seen as a strength by someone else.

Students should be taught correct grammatical principles within writing.  They must be taught elements such as proper paragraph and sentence structure.  However, no student should be discouraged from writing simply because of incorrect grammar.  Incorrect grammar can be corrected and taught, but the ability to connect with an audience by expressing one’s ideas is special and often rare.