The snow from winter storms is melting, and the persuasive writing lesson on ReadWriteThink.org is holding steady as the number one “most e-mailed” lesson. These are sure signs that it’s almost standardized testing season, and students across the country are getting ready to write for thirty minutes or so (and/or take a multiple-choice grammar and editing test) to demonstrate their level of proficiency as writers.
I’m part of the teaching generation that experienced standardized writing tests not only as an educator, but as a public school student as well. I vividly recall the day, and it must have been around this time of year, that my eighth grade language arts teacher announced that we would be participating in a brand new test: the state writing assessment.
I’m sure we wrote for other audiences and purposes in that class, but I confess that I don’t remember those assignments. I do, however, recall spending weeks learning how to budget time, read a prompt, focus an opening paragraph with a preview statement, elaborate on three points of support with plenty of detail, and end with a conclusion that restated that opening paragraph. (I can even recall the topic I wrote on: Why people should move to Kansas City). I dutifully mastered that mode of writing and, as the years went on, I found myself able to rely on it, relatively unchallenged, throughout high school.
We’re at a complicated point in literacy education right now, as the influence of testing (and the testing industry) is as strong as ever. For the foreseeable future, we’ll measure (“officially,” anyway) our students’ ability as writers with assessments that have no authentic audience and no rhetorical purpose other than to invite efficient evaluation by a nameless, faceless reader.
This phenomenon continues even as we see a staggering proliferation of authentic, self-sponsored writing made possible through user-friendly, Web-based publication technologies such as blogs, wikis, and social networking sites. It’s exciting to be part of an era that affords teachers and students the opportunity to write and publish in a medium such a blog to a real audience with relatively little technical know-how or effort. It’s also exciting to think that we’re part of the teaching generation that has the opportunity (and, I think, the responsibility) to figure out how use these new technologies to help students become more effective writers and to write ourselves (and, not insignificantly, to learn more about how and why people write).
I wonder about the implications of the growing disconnect between standardized writing assessments and the kinds of writing students see and participate in online themselves. Are teachers finding ways to use these new technologies to energize students and promote more effective writing, even on writing tasks that are so drastically different in form and function? Or are a blog and a timed writing test so different that the result can be only further disengagement as students see an even greater divide between the kinds of writing they do and the kinds of writing they see as being officially valued?
Perhaps more simply put: Is it enough to change our instruction to incorporate online writing technologies, or does this revolution in writing make even more urgent the need to rethink how we assess our students?