Friday, March 31, 2006

Why Kids Can't Write

The Washington Post's Jay Mathews argues that activists' rejection of high stake testing is merely an irrational fear of the unknown. In Mathews' opinion, these kind of tests, now mandated at several grade levels, do not compromise education because good teachers do not engage into drill fests. Mathews misdiagnoses the problem. The technical requirements of the tests shape the curriculum. That means that fundamental skills such as writing, reasoning, and analysis are increasingly marginalized.

I love my children's school, which provides them many opportunities. Somewhere at the policy level, however, the focus is off. In Maryland, third grade used to focus on composition. Due to testing pressures, the curriculum has dropped story, letter, and report writing. There is no compensation in later grades.

I am all for identifying kids that are not up to grade level and supporting them. But that cannot mean that children can no longer acquire basic life skills.

Composition elevates thinking to another level. Few things focus one's thoughts as having to put them down on paper in a coherent and concise way. In the workplace, you need to know how to properly describe a situation. Otherwise you cannot share information in a world of large organizations and bureaucracies.

My daughter's teacher will kindly provide my wife and me with a composition curriculum. Thirty minutes to an hour per day during the summer will probably be sufficient for our daughter to develop her writing skills at an age appropriate level. I am concerned, however, about her peers who will not have that opportunity.

It's already a problem. Teaching at a state college, in my experience most freshmen cannot write a coherent report, no matter how short or simple. A friend of mine who teaches history at Yale reports that she encounters the same problem.

After twelve years of schooling, young adults should be able to write a report about an automobile accident. They should be able to analyze a text, be it a speech by the President of the United States or a scene of Shakespeare.

The notion that multiple choice tests are the appropriate college entrance exam is not only ridiculous but damaging. Multiple choice tests are unable to measure thinking and understanding. They deemphasize skills such as composition or mathematical analysis and proof. Instead the tests are emphasizing the most trivial aspects of education. Multiple choice tests privilege "what" over "why," recognition over reasoning, memorization over skill. If that's what's rewarded then we need not be surprised that the educational attainment of college entries is trivial.

To be sure, the most responsible state legislatures have supplemented No Child Left Behind with short answer questions. Unfortunately, they neither count towards the federal mandate nor are they a substitute for proper composition.

Until we abandon the notion that one can rank order the nation's students with multiple choice tests such as the SAT, we will not be able to provide our children with a proper education. Easy and convenient measurement might be politically convenient. It makes for a crippled education.

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