Monday, December 1, 2014

Meaning and Standardized Writing

One of the most unsuccessful initiatives of the Great Education Makeover is the attempt to reduce writing to a skill set that can be assessed by a standardized test.

Making language is like making music-- there is definitely a technical component, but at the end of the day, technical mastery is not enough. I can play all the notes on the page and still be boring, lifeless, and unlikely to engage any audience. I can write something that fits the technical definition of an essay, and it can still be a terrible piece of writing.

All writing is problem solving, and like any problem solving activity, the most important step is defining the problem that you intend to solve.

The vast majority of student writing failures are not actually composition failures, but thinking failures. I often tell my students that they are having trouble with an assignment because they are starting with the wrong question. They are asking "what can I write to satisfy this assignment" or "how can I fill up this piece of paper" or "what can I use to fill in five paragraph-sized blanks," and these are all the wrong question to start with.

The correct problem that writing should solve is "How can I communicate what I want to communicate in a meaningful way?"

I choose "meaningful" because it's a fuzzy word. We may find meaning in being moved emotionally or challenged intellectually. Whatever meaning may be, our goal is to create an experience for another human (and because writing is also time travel, that other human might even be our future self).

There are certainly technical aspects to this operation. In fact, much of the history of literature is the history of writers inventing new techniques and forms to better communicate meaningfully. But technical skills by themselves are not only meaningless, but have no purpose if not used for some meaningful pursuit. That's why you don't pay money to sit in a concert hall and watch great musicians run scales and warm-up exercises.

The standardized testing approach to writing, both in "writing" assessments and in the open-ended response format now creeping into other tests, gets virtually nothing right at all. Nothing. The goal is itself a meager one-- let's just measure student technical skill-- and even that is not measured particularly well. Test writing is the opposite of good writing. The problem the student is trying to solve is not "How do I create a meaningful expression" but "How do I provide what the test scorer wants to see" or "What words can I use to fill up this space."

Students are supposed to react to the prompt or stimulus (yes, I've seen that word used, as if students are lab rats) with the appropriate response, and their response should not be side tracked by any attempt on their part to make the response meaningful. It is literally meant to be meaningless, as if stripping meaning from writing somehow leaves us with pure, measurable technique. This is like somehow sucking the bones from a human being on the theory that without the skeleton in place, we can get a better pure measurement of muscle tone.

Every teacher of writing has been saying the same thing for years-- standardized writing tests encourage and reward bad writing. "So what?" comes my least favorite response. "If they're really good writers, they ought to be able to fake the testing stuff, right?" Wrong on two counts.

First, while great writers may be able to "fake it," less great writers may not, and all writers run the risk of becoming hornswoggled into believing that Bad Writing is really the ideal. "Faking it" assumes some understanding that we're imitating something bogus. I'm concerned about students who don't recognized the bogus nature of test writing.

Second-- even if they can fake it, that's not a good thing. This is like saying that people who are really good at kissing their spouses would probably be equally good at kissing any random stranger. And, well-- do we really want anybody to be good at that? If the best kiss is one filled with meaning and significance, then why would we want to send the message that good kissing is just a matter of the right pucker and moisture and what it actually means is not even on the table. Who cares whose lips you're smooshing up against as long as your technique is good? Who cares about context or purpose or intent or any of the rest of it? Just pucker up and smoosh facial areas.

Sure, there are technical minimums that have to be reached. "Don't smoosh your lips against your partner's eyeball" is probably good technical kissing advice. "Don't write sentences composed entirely of prepositions" is also good advice. But as the ever-awesome Les Perelman has repeatedly demonstrated, standardized tests have a huge tolerance for meaningless gibberish that is technically proficient.

I remained convinced that it is absolutely impossible to create a useful cheap standardized test for writing. The repeated attempts to do so are a destructive expression of a nearly nihilistic impulse, the thinking of people who believe a picture of a bear rug is as good as a bear.


  1. Only discovered your blog today, but boy am I glad I did. I love your style of writing, an especially appropriate point given this topic. What you write is full of meaning that could never be predicted, assessed or rewarded by a standardized system.

    (I am not an educator, actually, but rather a software designer and fiction author. My wife is an educator, and her passion for it has spilled over on me, so here I am.)

  2. You may like some of the essays and videos on my site.....would be great if someone got use out of them: