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Guest Post by Peter Greene

We are living in the Golden Age of Bad Writing Instruction.

Mind you, the teaching of writing has always been problematic in the K-12 world. If you are of a Certain Age (i.e. mine) you may have fond memories of having to turn in a formal outline with every class paper, and the approach of many students (i.e. mine) was to write a paper, and then write an outline to go with it. And there has always been a problem with teachers who are uncomfortable with the squishiness of writing instruction, and so focus on the cold, hard, mechanical, red pen markable elements of composition.

But with the rise of the Big Standardized Test over the past fifteen years, writing instruction has taken a huge hit. The kind of writing that can be scored by a computer program (or by a human being chained to an algorithm that renders the human no smarter than a computer program) is not good writing.

My own department has become quite adept at gaming BS Test writing sections. Here are some of the proven rules for producing well-rated standardized writing:

Rewrite the prompt as your first sentence. Yes, you often sound like a dope, but this time-honored technique still works.

Fill up the page. Write lots of words. Don’t worry about being redundant—just keep filing up space.

Use some big fancy words. Do not worry about whether you are using them correctly or not. My personal favorite is “plethora,” but you can use whatever you like.

If you are taking a handwritten test, write as neatly as you can. Paragraph clearly. If your indents tend to be unclear, skip a line between paragraphs.

None of these are the mark of good writing, but for years, these rules have yielded good scores. The challenge for us in the classroom is to make clear that this is what we do to make test manufacturers happy

Test manufacturers in recent years have become more sophisticated. I could talk about some of the specifics, but I am not allowed to see the tests that my students take, and if I do by some accident happen to see the tests, I am required to banish everything I’ve seen from my memory and never breathe a word to anyone.

A typical “writing” section of a test might work like this. The student is given a short selection to read, then asked to imagine writing an essay in response. Here are four possible topics—pick the correct one. Here are several details from the selection—pick the correct ones to use in your essay. Current standardized writing tests often imply, bizarrely, that if everyone wrote a proper response to a reading selection, everyone would write essentially the same exact essay.

In fact, everything about BS Tests of writing is designed to make the students respond to one question—“What does the test manufacturer want you to say?” The real writer’s question (“What do I want to say about this?”) has no place in this Golden Age. And while teachers of real writing can work their hardest, the tests that students deal with for almost twelve years of school send a very different message.

And that’s why so many of our high school graduates are still lousy writers by the time they get to college.

​More writing by Peter Greene can be found at Curmudgucation

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