Thursday, April 17, 2008

Subjective writing standards: bad news for good writers

Today's elementary school writing assessments, just like those for math and science, have opened the floodgates of subjectivity.

Restricting ourselves to what's visible online, let's consider the Delaware State Writing Rubric as used, for example, by the Christina School District. Its standards for top quality elementary school prose include: "sufficient, specific, and relevant details that are fully elaborated," "smooth transitions," "effective introduction and closing," "appropriate" sentence variety, and "vivid word choice."

Turning to the California writing standards as used, for example, by the k-6 Museum School in San Diego, we see "writes with confidence," "well-chosen details," "descriptive words," "concrete, sensory details," "provides insight into why the selected incident is memorable," "self-motivated," "shows originality," "developed voice, sense of style, purpose," and "develops plot and character."

Of course, much of this has long governed middle and high school English assessments. Here, most teachers have majored or minored in English and, I would hope, know something about good writing.  

But such subjectivity is relatively new to elementary schools, where teachers once judged students primarily on penmanship, spelling, and grammar.

How qualified are these teachers, whose writing backgrounds may have ended with freshman English, and who often score in the bottom third on their SATs, to judge details, word choice, transitions, voice, and character development?  

How well they assess other people's writing must have something to do with how well they write themselves.

Howling over exceptionally bad teacher prose has become a blood sport among education bashers. Let's rise above this and consider, instead, a sample that reflects the writing skills, not of your average elementary school teacher, but of the leaders of today's Language Arts establishment. Here's the opening sentence of the overview by the National Council of Teachers of English of their Standards for the English Language Arts:

The vision guiding these standards is that all students must have the opportunities and resources to develop the language skills they need to pursue life's goals and to participate fully as informed, productive members of society.

There's not much here in the way of detail or vivid words, but in its four-fold embedding of clauses, this sample is nothing if not "elaborate." Eliminating the wordiness, repetition, and awkward, passive phrasing (as in "the vision.. is that") reduces the 36 words down to 25:

These standards seek to enable all students to acquire the language skills they need to pursue their goals and participate knowledgeably and productively in society.

But some teachers, especially elementary teachers, may be so poorly trained in writing, and so indoctrinated in "fully elaborated detail," that they are unable to distinguish useful detail from excessive verbiage. And, I expect, would rate my revision as inferior to NCTE's original.

The problem with subjective standards is that when under-skilled people use them, they often end up favoring inferior products.  

Until our grade school teachers' writing skills match their indoctrination in today's writing standards, the latter have no place in elementary school writing assessments.


Catherine Johnson said...

The writing situation in our schools is a nightmare. (Must go deal with the midpoint formula -- will elaborate later.)

Our high school bases all admissions to h.s. honors courses on student writing.

No one ever sees what kind of student writing gets a student into a class.

Students get into Honors courses or they don't and the reason given is "writing sample."

Alternatively: "writing sample" and "team meeting."

The team meeting appears to be a gathering of middle school teachers who agree that the student in question shouldn't be placed in an Honors course.

Snippets of their Team Conversation get read to parents who make appointments to protest their kids' rejection from Honors.

At the transition-to-high-school meeting, the high school principal told us that Honors placements were being based on writing samples because we have our new "Assured Writing Experiences" program in place.

The fact that the high school has based admissions to Honors courses on writing samples for as long as I've been here has vanished down the memory hole.

Also: no mention of whether the Assured Writing Experiences are working.

Catherine Johnson said...

And don't get me started on rubrics.

Catherine Johnson said...

Or on Writing Across the Curriculum.

Catherine Johnson said...

All of which leads to the Middle School Model and Interdisciplinary Teaming.

Thanks to Writing Across the Curriculum our Earth Science teacher proudly assigned her students a paper on intellectual history: "Write a paper on the most influential mineral in history."

Something like that.

If you were a historian, or if you knew something about the discipline of history, you would realize that that is an extremely complex question.

If you are a middle school Earth Science teacher you might or might not recognize this fact.

Catherine Johnson said...

Here are some of the assessment criteria from the Earth Science writing rubric:

For an A:

Work is precise, exact, and perfectly understood.

Superb and crystal clear writing, each word accurately describes the thoughts and intentions of the author.

Outstanding use of detail is used to bring great depth and breadth to the material

All 5Ws are present, accompanied by supporting detail.

This allows for full understanding and comprehension of the narrative to the fullest degree. [whoops! it's a narrative! not a piece of reportage!]

The work is clear, thorough, proficient, and done with incredible diligence.

lefty said...

Catherine--Thanks for the rubric! I'd love to see how superbly and crystal clearly the teachers in question can write.

Any sense of what sorts of kids are offered admission into the honors course? Also, is it an all or nothing deal (all subjects are honors, or none)?

I'd love to learn more about Assured Writing Experiences and Writing Across the Curriculum.