How Standardized Tests Interfere with Student Writing Success

How Standardized Tests Interfere with Student Writing Success

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 much more information, visit

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

Dr. Bryant has created and authored his signature online writing program, College-Ready Writing Essentials, as well as several other free & paid resources designed to target the college-ready writing gap. He has written for Getting Smart, Curmudgication, and Bright Magazine. 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. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

What Is College-Ready Writing?

What Is College-Ready Writing?

Why are so many entering college students unprepared for college writing?

Each year, most students graduating from high school go on to attend college, yet the majority are not college-ready. They do not have the writing skills and experience they need for success.

The consequences are significant. Unprepared students often are required to take remedial courses that they don’t receive credit for. Many can’t get past their general education requirements because they don’t have the fundamental literacy skills. They can’t proceed to higher level courses, so fall behind schedule for earning their degrees. Too often they grow frustrated and drop out.

Writing is the skill most linked to college success.1 It’s therefore not surprising that so many students struggle in multiple disciplines when they haven’t first learned to write.

Features of College-Ready Writing

We have a good idea of the competencies needed for college writing success. Three of the most authoritative voices on college writing—the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project—produced a Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing establishing the knowledge, skills, and abilities critical for college writing.

Many other knowledge and skills frameworks have been produced around college readiness in general, including one from ConnectEd, College and Career Readiness: What Do We Mean?, that distills a dozen or so other compilations, and adds the perspectives of economists, educators, researchers, and policy organizations.

Taken together, these frameworks give a clear picture of the competencies required for success in college. They include not only cognitive but also noncogitive and metacognitive competencies. That is, the frameworks recognize that students must have fundamental academic skills but also must demonstrate behaviors that lead to success (such as persistence and a willingness to cooperate with others) and the ability to think critically about their own learning and their relationship to the school and society around them.

We can think of this collection of competencies as 1) writing knowledge and skills; 2) social and personal behaviors; and 3) self and social awareness.

Identifying these competencies provides some guidance for how best to teach writing to college-bound students. We know, for example, that students do best when prior to entering college they have experience composing extended, research-supported essays—since that’s the kind of writing they’ll be asked to do most often in their college courses.

The research also clearly recognizes that students must know how to function within the social environment of college academics and must develop the habit of thinking critically about their own goals and performance, as well as about how they as individuals are situated within the communities in which they learn and work.

Studies show that high school writing instruction generally is lacking in all three of these areas.2 Students aren’t gaining experience with extended writing, and there is little overt instruction around academic behaviors and awareness. Little wonder then that so many students arrive at college without knowing what is expected of them or how to meet those expectations.

A number of factors contribute to this gap between high school and college. State standards play a major role, as do standardized tests. In addition, the modes of instruction differ, the theories of composition aren’t aligned, and there’s a big difference in the emphasis placed on critical thinking compared with the surface features of writing, such as spelling and punctuation.

This chart shows some of the major differences between high school and college writing instruction.

In my distillation of the research on writing instructional practices, the problems can be grouped into two primary areas:

1) Students do not get enough instruction and practice in authentic academic composition prior to college;

2) Pre-college writing instruction too often is not aligned with college-level expectations.

Not Enough Authentic Composition

The studies of middle and high school writing instruction conducted in recent years are consistent in finding that students do not get sufficient practice at composing. A report issued by the National Commission on Writing in 2003 stressed the importance of increasing the amount of writing students do,3 but that increase has not happened: the vast majority of classroom assignments require little generation of text and no critical thinking. In contrast, college coursework typically requires extended compositions in which students analyze, interpret, and construct evidence-based explanations and arguments.4

An abundance of research thus indicates that most students’ writing experience prior to college is not rigorous enough to prepare them for the demands of college-level academic work. They are not getting enough experience at authentic academic composition and the interpretive reading, analysis, argumentation, and other higher order skills that go with it.

Whatever forces outside the classroom are working against them, this lack of rigorous writing experience is a major disadvantage to students entering college, since, as one study found, “the academic intensity of the student’s high school curriculum still counts more than anything else in precollegiate history in providing momentum toward completing a bachelor’s degree.”5

Myriad causes underlie the absence of composition in middle and high school instruction. Classrooms are overcrowded, making it impractical for teachers to assign extended projects that require them to read and respond thoroughly to a large volume of student prose.6

Standardized test preparation tends to drive classroom instruction toward short, inauthentic writing assignments, at the expense of writing that requires invention, sustained engagement, research, multiple drafts, and other dimensions of authentic academic work.7

Writing, especially argumentative writing, is a difficult skill to teach, even under the best of circumstances.8 Many composition teachers feel unprepared, and there is a widespread lack of confidence among them that their approach is in synch with how their students will be asked to write in post-secondary classrooms.9

In addition, available instructional resources, despite claims of alignment with college-readiness standards, often do not support the competencies actually required for college success; nor do they conceptualize or contextualize writing in ways that convey to students the important work that writing accomplishes within and beyond academics.10

There is no universal definition of college-ready or college-level writing, in part because there are such wide differences in the academic demands of postsecondary institutions, from open-access community colleges to highly selective universities.11

Nevertheless, the large number of sources seeking to define competencies needed for college writing success agree that postsecondary students, whatever their institution, must be prepared to produce extended pieces of writing that critically engage with source materials and other perspectives, and that conform to academic conventions of style and presentation.12

The Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing states that college writers should demonstrate rhetorical knowledge, critical thinking, a knowledge of writing processes, and knowledge of conventions, as well as habits of mind such as engagement, persistence, and responsibility.13

The competencies needed for successful academic writing are acquired through direct instruction and practice. Students who do not have an opportunity to begin learning and practicing such skills prior to leaving high school consequently are unprepared for college-level work after graduation.

Misalignment between pre-college instruction and college expectations

A general disconnect between high school and college instruction is well documented.14 According to a six-year national study on college readiness from Stanford University, “coursework between high school and college is not connected; students graduate from high school under one set of standards and, three months later, are required to meet a whole new set of standards in college.”15

Efforts by many states to integrate instruction from pre-K through college via collaborative “P-20 Councils” have proven difficult to sustain and have lost momentum in recent years.16

High school graduates themselves recognize large gaps in their preparedness: only one in four reports that their high school set high academic expectations, while over 70 percent say that, knowing what they know now about the expectations of college and the work world, they wish they had taken more challenging courses in high school.17

Even though writing is the academic skill most essential to college success, rigorous writing is among the fundamental areas of disjuncture between high school and college instruction.18 Indeed, the majority of college students themselves feel that their writing does not meet expectations for quality.19

As one group of writing researchers states, “the distance between high school and college is not just another step up some academic staircase but instead a chasm.”20

Not enough authentic composition happens in pre-college classrooms, but when composition is taught, in what ways is it at odds with what students encounter in college? Standards play a role, as does standardized testing. In addition, the way teachers and students interact is different in high school writing classrooms, compared with college.

Attention to noncognitive and metacognitive skills also differs between high school and college.

But one of the most important differences, in my view, is in the theory of writing operative in each venue. How we conceptualize writing determines how we go about teaching it, so if high school teachers and college instructors hold fundamentally different assumptions about what writing is, there’s no surprise if their methods of teaching are misaligned.

Understanding the nature of the misalignment is a necessary step in designing a better approach.

For much more information, visit

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

Dr. Bryant has created and authored his signature online writing program, College-Ready Writing Essentials, as well as several other free & paid resources designed to target the college-ready writing gap. He has written for Getting Smart, Curmudgication, and Bright Magazine. 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. Connect with him on LinkedIn.

Works Cited

  1. cf. Achieve, 2014; Attewell, Heil, & Reisel, 2011; Barry & Dannenberg, 2016; Briggs, 2009; Conley, 2007; Conley, et al., 2006; Shapiro, et al, 2017; Shulock & Callan, 2010. ↩︎
  2. cf. Applebee & Langer, 2011; Bridge, Compton-Hall, & Cantrell, 1997; Graham, et al, 2014; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Palincsar & Klenk, 1992; Perin, 2013; Santelises & Dabrowski, 2015; Scherff & Piazza, 2005; Troia, 2007. ↩︎
  3. National Commission on Writing, 2003. ↩︎
  4. Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009, p. 151. ↩︎
  5. Adelman, 2006. Also see Attewell & Domina, 2008; Long, Conger, & Iatarola, 2012 ↩︎
  6. Applebee & Langer, 2011; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; National Commission on Writing, 2003; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006. ↩︎
  7. Applebee & Langer, 2011; Council of Writing PRogram Administrators, et al., 2011; Hassel & Giordano, 2013; Hamp-Lyons, 2002; Venezia & Jaeger, 2013. ↩︎
  8. Lunsford, 2002; Prior, 2006 ↩︎
  9. From their national survey of high schools, Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken (2009) report that “seventy-one percent of all teachers indicated that they received minimal to no preparation to teach writing during college” (p. 148). See also Graham et al, 2014; Kirst & Bracco, 2004; Marlink & Wahleithner, 2011; Read & Landon-Hays, 2013; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006; Troia & Olinghouse, 2013; Venezia & Jaeger, 2013; Venezia & Voloch, 2012. ↩︎
  10. Council of Writing Program Administrators, et al., 2011; Hassel & Giordano, 2013; Perin, 2013; Santelises & Dabrowski, 2015; Troia & Olinghouse, 2013. ↩︎
  11. Marlink & Wahleithner, 2001; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006 ↩︎
  12. cf. Condon & Kelly-Riley, 2004; Conley, 2003; Harris, 1996; Sparks, et al., 2014. ↩︎
  13. Council of Writing Program Administrators, et al., 2011. ↩︎
  14. cf. Association of American Colleges, 2007; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Shulock & Callan, 2010; Spellings, 2006; Perin, 2013; Venezia & Kirst, 2017. ↩︎
  15. Venezia, Kirst, and Antonio, 2003. ↩︎
  16. Perna & Armijo, 2014; Rippner, 2017. ↩︎
  17. Achieve, 2014. ↩︎
  18. Condon & Kelly-Riley, 2004; Conley, 2007; Denecker, 2013; Hoppe, 2014; Scherff & Piazza, 2005; Tsui & Gao, 2006. ↩︎
  19. Achieve, 2014. ↩︎
  20. Sullivan, Tinberg, & Blau, 2012 (p. 28). ↩︎