Saturday, April 12, 2008

Writing Achievement? Part 2

In the previous posting, I questioned the “encouraging” student writing achievement on the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress—aka, the nation’s report card. With only about ⅓ of eighth grade students and about ¼ of high school seniors achieving proficiency, I’m puzzled by the seemingly excited results. Yes, progress is progress, but using these results to show that “the death of writing has been greatly exaggerated,” as the vice chairwoman of board overseeing the testing proclaimed (Dillon, 2008), seems akin to saying that because the tree is only ¾ dead it is not exaggerating to call it healthy.

However, I also questioned what the test actually tests and what we actually teach. Let’s begin with the test, as it mirrors the main error I see in much of our instruction.

Most achievement tests, like the NAEP, give students a prompt—usually narrative, informative, or persuasive—and a confined period, often 20-30 minutes, in which to “write.” The results are then assessed by an “expert” or a panel who determines an achievement level.

Is this an authentic assessment of writing? When professional writers and editors discuss writing, they emphasize revising as THE key to quality writing. Just this morning, I heard an author interviewed on NPR who said writing was a matter of getting a voice in your head and major revision. In A Writer’s Coach, editor Jack Hart spends about 15% of the book discussing matters of process and drafting and the rest of the book explaining all the details that need attention during multiple revisions.

This reality-based perspective reveals the weakness of the NAEP’s and our instruction’s approach to writing. We engage students in drafting and evaluate the results as if they were writing. Often, our approach lacks even sound pre-writing practices, such as developing a vision for what will be written. (And even this step, visioning, requires multiple actions to ensure the draft heads in the right direction.) In testing situations, the time allocated does not allow for much, if any, prewriting thought.

When I earned my undergraduate degrees, we were told that it was important for students to be writing frequently (i.e., daily) and to be producing vast amounts of written work, which we tended to proudly display—the more student writing on display, the better we must be teaching students to write. Right?

No, we were teaching students that writing meant creating a draft and calling it completed. Imagine you hired a builder to construct a new home, and when you arrived at the site several months later you found a pile of building materials. You question the builder who says, “But all the raw materials are here!” Having students draft frequently but rarely complete significant revisions engages students in piling up writing’s raw materials. A home will not emerge from the pile, and neither will authentic writing spring from just the draft.

I think one reason we take this approach is a lack of knowledge about revising writing. I know that in my case, even with a degree in English, I really did not understand revision processes until recently. I would tell students to revise their writing without any additional guidance or instruction. As a result, revising became little more than proofing, checking mostly for spelling errors.

So, it seems we have two “issues” to face. First, our current assessments of student writing do not actually measure writing as professionals working in the field describe it. Second, we need to engage students in significantly more revising of writing and provide the instruction necessary to equip students to engage in revision. As author and editor Susan Bell says, “The debate continues on whether you can teach someone to write; I know, unequivocally, that you can teach someone to edit” (p. 1). We need to teach students to edit, to revise and improve their drafts to produce authentic writing.

The NAEP likely reveals something about student achievement, but viewing it as an assessment of authentic writing seems off target. The best assessment of student writing capacity may be the teacher who instructs and observes at every stage of the process, noting the prewriting activity and, especially, the revision abilities students apply. No formalized test with confined, prompted drafting will ever produce writing samples that reveal authentic writing ability. For such assessment, we need teachers with deep understandings of the writing process and the collection of actions present in each step, and learning activities that emphasize revision, revision, revision. Currently, our students draft too much, and actually write too little.

I welcome your insights! Feel free to send me an email or, better yet, post a comment!

Bell, S. (2007). The artful edit: On the practice of editing yourself. New York: W. W. Norton.

Dillon, S. (2008). In test, few students are proficient writers. The New York Times, accessed April 3, 2008 via


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading this posting because I consider myself to be less than average in teaching writing. It is one of the areas in which I struggle the most when teaching. I am trying to do better and will keep in mind your comments about revising. You're exactly right about the testing! I wonder if the testing companies would ever consider giving the tests in stages so that only the "final" product is assessed. Students could have time to go through the writing process throughout the year and not just a rough draft in one twenty minute period. Thanks again for the post! I enjoy reading your insights!

Kevin D. Washburn, Ed.D. said...

You have bravely voiced what I believe to be quite common. We, as teachers, lack the knowledge we need to teach writing effectively. I do not see this as an issue we've willingly created, but as the result of how we were taught. Whereas you can catch up in some other areas (e.g., I can read about eras of history I do not know well), writing is different, and our language textbooks do little to further equip us. This is an area where additional professional development is needed, but not in a "do this then this" way. We need deep understanding of writing as a process and know-how of writing's myriad of skills.

As for the testing, I doubt we'll see rethinking very soon. Doing it right requires more time and manpower than we are currently willing to commit. That's why I think we, as teachers, really have to assume greater responsibility for both the instruction and assessment of student writing ability. However, this takes us back to the dire need for professional development in this area.

Stay tuned!