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How Standardized Tests Interfere with Student Writing Success

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Many of the best practices reflected in the Common Core State Standards and other standards frameworks do not make it into classroom instruction because they cannot be assessed via conventional standardized testing.

Student writing quality, in particular, suffers.

The frameworks typically, and rightly, emphasize authentic composition skills such as research, planning, and revision—skills essential to completing an authentic piece of academic writing. Conventional testing, however, asks students to demonstrate their knowledge of writing by answering multiple-choice questions, which have little ability to measure real composition skills or higher-level thinking.

Some tests do ask students to generate a timed, impromptu essay, based on a standardized prompt. But the writing students produce in response to these prompts bears little resemblance to authentic academic composition: for example, timed writing tests provide no opportunity for students to find and analyze credible sources, to strategize and plan a nuanced argument or presentation of ideas, or to refine their thinking and polish their work through revision.

In their examination of assessments from 20 states, Brown and Conley found that English tests “aligned poorly or not at all” with the higher order thinking skills required for entry-level college success. Standards frameworks may articulate essential writing skills, but the execution of many of those skills requires authentic educational contexts and extended time frames.

To the extent that teachers and schools are held accountable for their students’ performance on standardized tests, they have incentive to prioritize the skills that are measured by the tests, and to neglect those that are not. Thus, even where standards frameworks do cover authentic and effective writing practices, these skills may not receive much attention in the classroom, because they’re not part of year-end accountability tests.

Student Writing Suffers

A large body of research documents the detrimental impact of high-stakes standardized tests on student learning, especially their tendency to narrow classroom curriculum to test-taking preparation. In the case of writing, as Applebee and Langer state, “high stakes tests are having a very direct and limiting effect on classroom emphasis. And given the dearth of writing required on most tests, this creates a powerful momentum away from the teaching of writing.”

While the tests purport to serve as a proxy for writing ability broadly conceived, they are not valid measures of authentic writing. The tests create a highly contrived context for writing that exists nowhere outside of testing. Since the writing students generate on the tests does not resemble the writing they’re required to produce in authentic contexts, the tests have low construct validity.

Standardized assessments tend to shift the focus of classroom writing instruction toward form rather than content, and toward product rather than process. This shift points away from research-verified best practices, and from the skilled writing that is needed for college and workplace success.

When teachers prepare students for standardized tests, writes Hillocks, “they are likely to mirror the worst features of the assessment, focusing on form, rewarding students for surface features and grammatical correctness—even though instructional literature indicates students need strategies for thinking about content far more than they need instruction in formal features of writing.”

According to Hassel and Giordano, the texts produced on conventional standardized tests, “almost never demonstrate a student’s ability in the most important skills sets, including knowledge of academic conventions, rhetorical knowledge, and process.”

A further concern about the impact of standardized tests on classroom instruction and learning stems from the automated scoring of test-taker essays. A piece of effective writing is intended to have an impact on its readers, but automated scoring systems don’t understand what they read and thus cannot register the rhetorical effect of a student’s work, even though this is one of the primary measures of its quality.

One leading researcher states, “the features of writing to which automated scoring systems are least sensitive are the very ones that writing instructors most value, including audience awareness, factual accuracy, rhetorical style, and quality of argument.

Conversely, the factors to which machines are most sensitive—essay length and mechanical correctness—are the ones the writing community values least. To the extent that students and teachers adjust their practice to emphasize the latter set of factors over the former, student writing may suffer.”

That suffering translates into a lack of preparation for college-level academic work. The “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing” recommends against this kind of testing, because “standardized writing curricula or assessment instruments that emphasize formulaic writing for nonauthentic audiences will not reinforce the habits of mind and the experiences necessary for success as students encounter the writing demands of postsecondary education.

The online resource I’ve developed, College-Ready Writing Essentials, is a classroom and home resource designed to give students the kind of authentic composition experience they need most for college success instead.

For more information, visit collegereadywriting.com.

Dr. William Bryant is the Co-Founder and President of BetterRhetor Resources, an educational publishing & services company he and his wife, Becky, operate headquartered in Prescott, Arizona.

Dr. Bryant has created College-Ready Writing and authored his signature online writing program, College-Ready Writing Essentials, as well as several other free and paid resources designed to target the college-ready writing gap. He has written for Getting Smart and Curmudgication and worked for a decade at ACT Inc., lastly as Director of Writing Assessments.

In addition to college readiness, Dr. Bryant writes about education, equity, democracy—and how they fit together on his American-Educator blog. Connect with him on LinkedIn.