Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Writing ... and reading

Inside Higher Ed had an interesting story the other day about training (not educating) a student to do well on the SAT essay exam. That story, Fooling the College Board, generated a lot of comment about standardized testing of writing. I found the comments as interesting as the article.

My summary of this experiment is that it demonstrates the weaknesses of mass grading dictated by a rubric whose rules are known (or, in this case, inferred from published information provided to the public). [*] Clearly, if you teach to the rubric (which our institution's Kool-Aid Lecture Series suggests is one favored approach) you might get nothing but formulaic results from the best students.

The premise of the SAT is that it predicts performance in college. I don't know if that premise has been tested for the essay part but, if so, it says a lot about college writing requirements that form is of greater significance than content in the grading of the essay in question. I am more concerned with what it says about the teaching of composition in any high school where "high stakes" testing includes an essay. They must spend 90 to 100% of their time teaching formulaic writing.

I had forgotten about the "5 paragraph essay", or maybe our schools did not use it. In any case, that certainly explains why some students seem unable to write only three paragraphs when I ask for that, but does not explain why some fail to grasp the idea of an introduction and a conclusion. Guess those are the unprepared ones, but how did they pass the HS grad test's writing component? Does that mean the HS test has only one paragraph? Is that what passes for being prepared to leave high school (and go on to college) these days?

Might explain a lot. Will have to look into that.

Certainly it could explain why it is harder to get students to write a short executive summary of their lab results, with an emphasis on the most important data, than it is to get them to write an open-ended summary. Might also explain why those longer essays sometimes seem to consist of lots of letters but few ideas.

I gather that writing a "precis" is a lost art. (Certainly must be, if blogger does not even recognize it as a correctly spelled word. Sheesh.) A precis is a writing form that requires a lot of critical thinking, usually in response to a close reading of some original text. Just what I want my students to be able to do. The problem is that it takes as much time as other approaches, yet does not generate the large word count required by strict guidelines on writing volume set by the state.

[*] Full disclosure: I evaluated proposals for ETS in the distant past, and was most impressed with the way they prepared us and kept us on task. Although that exercise has zero to do with grading SAT essays, because eventually we all discussed all of the proposals that made it to the final rounds, it makes me 100% sure that ETS would hold its graders to a tight time limit per essay and strict adherence to the grading rubric set for that essay.

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