Why testing methods should matter to teachers

laptop computer with keys spelling COMPOSE highlighted. Banner says "Compose here."
Ignore for a moment the issue of whether standardized tests carry too much weight in education.

Do you want to handicap your students unnecessarily on standardized tests?

Probably not.

Steve Graham, who has researched and written extensively on writing in schools, says his research shows that students who take writing tests on a computer do better than those who answered in handwriting, but that is true only if the students were experienced in writing at the computer.

He writes:

A student’s mastery of the method of testing matters. For students with little experience, computer assessments underestimate their writing achievement.

(Handwriting that’s not legible produces a similar underestimation of writing skill.)

It’s 25 years since the first website went online: It’s time every student is fluent at composing at the keyboard.

It’s perfectly OK to have students use pen and paper to doodle their way to a plan for writing if that’s how they’re comfortable, but you need to have students practice composing at the keyboard regularly. I recommend practice at least once a week.

And, yes, you need to require keyboard composition even if you teach art or agriculture: This isn’t just an English teacher thing.


Research: Little Writing Instruction Even in Best-Regarded Schools

The years between 1979 and 2009 were a time of great changes in education. They saw the development of new technologies for writing, research, and instruction; a growing demand for evidence-based practice; and imposition of high stakes testing.

To see how the teaching of writing in America’s middle schools and high schools changed in those 30-years, Arthur N. Applebee and Judith A. Langer of the State University of New York at Albany studied 20 schools chosen because of their reputations for excellence in the teaching of writing. The researchers looked not only at the English classes in those schools, but also math, science, and social studies.

The researchers found that in schools with excellent reputations for teaching writing:

  • English teachers are doing a better job of teaching the writing process today than 30 years ago.
  • Students write more for their English classes than for any other subject.
  • Students write more for their other subjects combined than they do for English.
  • Only 19% of writing assignments were a paragraph or more; the remainder were “writing without composing” activities such as fill-in-the blanks.
  • Writing counts less than multiple choice or short answer questions in assessing performance in English even on locally-created tests.
  • Other than math classes, less than a third of classrooms studied use any technology.
  • When technology was used, it was usually used by the teacher.
  • Roughly 6 in 10 students hand-write their first drafts; only 23% at middle school and 42% at high school composed first drafts on computer.
  • Outside of science classes, embedding media into writing is rare.
  • Collaboration on writing projects is rare outside English classes where fewer than ¼ of students collaborate with peers for editing or responses.
  • Contemporary teachers’ notions of good instructional practice for teaching writing are research-based.
  • Contemporary teachers’ instructional practices mimic those of 1979, focusing on short-answers and copying from the board.

To find out what the authors think is responsible for these conditions in schools with reputations for excellence in teaching writing and how the conditions are likely to influence implementation of the Common Core State Standards, see the full article:

Applebee, Arthur N. and Judith A. Langer. “A Snapshot of Writing Instruction in Middle Schools and High Schools.” English Journal 100.6 (2011): 14–27. http://www.ncte.org/library/NCTEFiles/Resources/Journals/EJ/1006-jul2011/EJ1006Extra.pdf

Colonoscopies, Contractors, and Composition

For decades, I’ve planned year-long composition courses so that the majority of my students would meet my annual objectives by the beginning of the sixth month of the nine-month academic calendar.

Unlike real educators, who begin with theoretical underpinnings and work toward practice, I grab something I think—or hope—will work and plunge ahead without thinking about educational theory. Sometimes I get lucky and my idea works.

Aiming to meet my annual objectives about two-thirds of the way through the course is one of the ideas that worked well. It allowed me to bring all students up to my standard of competence—what I call C level— by year’s end. Some years, all my students went beyond competence to writing at the A or B level by year’s end.

Learning to write nonfiction competently is a tough slog. Students don’t have to work terribly hard, but they have to put in consistent effort on a nearly daily basis for an extended period of time. And they often have to put up with some painful criticism along the way.

Considering how painful the process of learning to write is, I am always surprised at how little excitement students show when they get it right. The typical response is, “Yeah. OK.” No champagne corks, no bonfires, no balloons, just, “Yeah. OK.”

Why weren’t students more excited about mastering writing when the process was so painful?

I think I discovered the answer in New York Times Opinionator piece by Ezekiel J. Emanuel. Emanuel likened the pain of a colonoscopy to the pain of going through a home renovation: the last part of either experience determines its misery quotient.

Emanuel cites Daniel Kahneman’s studies on pain that found people remember the level of pain at the very end of an experience. If the pain lessened toward the end, people rate the total experience as less painful even if the experience overall all is longer and more painful.

My students suffer the protracted misery of learning to write. However, since I plan for the level of effort to begin to diminish about two-thirds of the way through the course, students are left with a general impression that learning to write isn’t all that tough.

Coincidentally, the tough work I have to do in teaching writing also begins to diminish about two-thirds of the way through the course, leaving me with the general impression that teaching writing isn’t all that tough.

[Broken link removed 2014-04-24.]