Florida 2012 Writing Assessment: Testing the Public’s Patience
Whenever a public speaker or a writer has to discuss a potentially boring topic, it’s a good idea to start off with a joke. Standardized testing is a pretty boring subject, so here’s an anecdote I wrote a few months ago (with a slight change to the punch line).
It was standardized test time, and a public school teacher who was about to retire was administering the examination to her homeroom. The kids had just begun, and the teacher was emphasizing a couple very important points.
“Remember, I cannot help you with any answers,” she said. “I can only help you with the directions.” As she said this, she pointed to answer A on question #3 to several students.
“Remember to make your pencil marks dark and neat,” she continued, pointing to answer D on question #6 on several students’ answer sheets.
A test monitor peeking in from the hallway saw the retiring teacher and hurried into the classroom.
“Don’t help the students,” the monitor whispered. “If you get caught, you could lose your job and all your retirement benefits.”
“Help the students?” the retiring teacher said in a low voice. “These little monsters have given me so much grief this year, I’m giving them the wrong answers.”
“Remember, the state of Florida has changed the standards,” the monitor said. “These kids will probably fail the test anyway.”
Florida has made news in the last week because of the state’s standardized test results. As a writer, I’m not that interested in Florida’s plummet in math or science or history, but I’m fascinated by a massive drop in the state’s writing scores. In one year, the percentage of students that passed Florida’s writing test dropped from around 80% to around 30%.
That’s the kind of result that even the meanest teacher can’t cause by giving wrong answers.
From what I’ve read (I actually researched this a little bit!), this drop happened for two reasons.
When it comes to the writing test, Florida uses a rating system where 6 is the highest possible score, and 0 is the lowest. In the past, students would have to score a 3.5 (whatever that means) to pass writing. This year, they had to score a 4 (again, whatever that means) to pass.
Just raising the score needed to pass probably would have led to more students failing the writing test. But wait, there’s more!
Then the state made the test itself more difficult. In the past, essays were graded holistically, where grammar, spelling, and punctuation mistakes weren’t counted against the student that much. This year, those kinds of errors could hurt writing scores a lot more.
The problem is that it takes more than one year to wean students from holistic writing. Holistic writing is where the teacher gives students a topic and then tells them how wonderful their stories are (and maybe offers a suggestion or two on a good day). The mentality of teaching grammar and punctuation is completely different from holistic writing. Going from holistic to grammar is hard work. In football terms, it’s like going from the wishbone to a West Coast Offence in one season. At the very least, there will be some growing pains.
There’s a case for making a test more challenging. There’s also a case for raising the grade needed to pass (I guess). It’s monumentally stupid to make a test more difficult and then raise the grade needed to pass at the same time. If you can’t foresee a plummet in the passing rate and then predict the panic that follows such a plummet, you don’t understand human nature and you shouldn’t be in education.
This is probably a case where the people in charge of the test (I don’t know who they are) got carried away. Making a test is probably difficult, and maybe the test makers took pride in creating a challenging assessment. When I was in high school, I overheard a teacher bragging about how difficult she made her test. A couple days later she yelled at her classes because a bunch of kids failed that same test.
Me? I got an A because I studied harder, knowing that it would be tough. Eavesdropping pays off.
Writing a good writing test has to be tough. You need to give students a topic they can work with and then figure out how much time they need to do a good job. If you give students too much time, kids will dawdle. If you give them too little time, kids won’t have time to go through the entire writing process (brainstorming, rough draft, revise/edit, final copy).
I once had a teacher who said after you write a rough draft, you should wait six months before revising and completing a final copy. I don’t think any state is going to hire that teacher to design a writing test.
It also has to be tough grading a writing test. Math, history, and science tests are easy because they’re objective tests; the answers are either right or wrong. You can run the tests through a computer and have instant results. Even though computers can grade certain essays (ones written on a computer), humans have to grade the state writing tests. And much of writing is subjective, which means that the score depends almost as much on the person grading it as it does the person who wrote it.
I’m not sure who grades Florida writing test essays, but they’re probably not writers. A writer who grades student compositions will get angry and frustrated at all the bad writing. A non-writer who grades student writing might not know what to look for. And the papers won’t go away. There must be millions and millions of Florida essays to grade, all within the period of a few weeks. When a person has to grade a massive number of essays in a short amount of time, I’m pretty sure the grading isn’t very thorough. And from my experience with state writing tests, the students and parents never get the writing back to see why the students received/earned their scores.
Of course, it also has to be difficult for a student to take a writing test. Even accomplished writers would have a tough time with a writing test because the topics are so bland. Writers need a good topic, and if we can’t get ourselves interested in the topic the state assessment provides for us, then our compositions wouldn’t reflect our true skills.
For example, if I had gotten the “write a story about a camel” topic that Florida used for one grade level, I would have written a story about the time my older brother gave me my first (and only) cigarette (a Camel). The story would have been hilarious (from my older brother’s point of view), but the state employee reading my narrative would have punished me for being off topic and inappropriate.
My grammar and punctuation, however, would have been outstanding.
The state of Florida is probably doing the right thing by going back to its previous scoring standard, but it’s also probably doing it for the wrong reason: to save their jobs. When student passing rates drop from 80% to 30% in one year, somebody’s going to get fired.
And if you can’t fire all the teachers, then you fire the guy who changed the scoring standard.
And if you’re the guy who changed the scoring standard, then you change it back before the people who can fire you (or get you fired) decide that you need to get fired for it.
If there’s a bright side to this, it’s that 49 other states now know what NOT to do when they make changes to their standardized tests.