Tuesday, June 15, 2004

Standardized Writing

A good piece in the Chicago Tribune about the difficulties in objectively judging a thing like writing in students' stadardized tests.
At 14, Ulises Gonzales is the kind of writer who makes his English teacher sigh with appreciation. His imagery is vivid, his style fluid and imaginative, his mechanics flawless.

Ulises' Burr Ridge teacher believes he will be a published writer someday. She also suspects he failed his 8th grade standardized writing test.

The person who grades that test will be a $10-an-hour temporary worker in a conference room in Tampa who spends about three minutes on each essay. Ulises is likely to lose points because, among other things, his ended without a summary and makes no explicit reference to the test question--a criteria on the checklist given to each grader.

And then there's this:
Standardized writing tests measure certain benchmarks of basic competence--complete sentences, well-organized paragraphs, supporting details, correct pronouns.

The tests do not measure the grace and innovation found in the best writing.

They penalize pupils who struggle to finish in the prescribed 40 minutes, as Ulises did, without necessarily crediting his unconventional uses of dialogue and descriptive passages that have characters "yelling with a surprising ferocity" and "detention slips clenched in tight fists."

In the end, what these tests evaluate is so formulaic that in Indiana, a machine does the grading. In May, some 50,000 high school juniors there took an online essay test that was evaluated by computers using a form of artificial intelligence designed to mimic human readers.

Which seems like a real shame, since writing is supposed to be something done by humans for other humans. Sort of a tree-falling-in-the-woods argument. If another human being doesn't read it, did you really write anything? OK, it's not a perfect analogy, but you can mimic the form of acceptable writing without actually saying anything. An interesting test would be to string together nonsensical phrases that are nonetheless pefectly constructed and see what sort of score is returned.
Yet he acknowledged that many teachers still teach "the formula:" the five-paragraph, three-topic essay with lots of repetition and tired paragraph transitions that begin with "first," "second" and "in conclusion." Hunter said this kind of staid essay is enough to pass the test, but not enough to exceed standards, which is why so few pupils rise to the top level.

At least the teacher has some doubts:
Wheeler admires Ulises' refusal to compromise his writing quality, but she also knows she will be judged on the passing rate of her pupils. Her school is a diverse one in a neighborhood of million-dollar homes, where parents expect top-notch scores on state exams. She agonizes over how hard to push pupils like Ulises when she's teaching her class how to write for the ISAT, the state exam.

"The test works for the student who doesn't have any understanding about writing. It gives them a starting point," said Wheeler. "But really great writers don't write that way. They break the rules."

Burr Ridge Principal Debra LeBlanc said testing exacts a toll in all classrooms, but the writing exam troubles her most because she believes it is too arbitrary for a subject where mastery can take many forms.

She sees so much sameness in her pupils' writing that "even my thank-you notes read like little ISAT tests. `I really liked having lunch with you. Here are three reasons why.'"

Coincidentally, I read this the same morning that I read this on Neil Gaiman's site. It's part of his response to a fan's inquiry about an idea of telling a story from an unusual point-of-view:
The main rule of writing is that, if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you're allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But it's definitely true for writing.)

I've been rereading some P.G. Wodehouse recently, and am fascinated by what he does with point of view. The point of view he writes from (if he's not telling a first person account) is The Author's, which allows him enormous freedom to zoom in and out of people's heads whenever he wants to, in a way that is, I suspect, completely forbidden by the writers' guides.

(Back when I was writing Sandman monthly I came up with a definition of story that satisfied me. A story, I decided, is anything that keeps the people reading turning the pages, and doesn't leave them feeling cheated at the end. Everything else was up for grabs.)

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