Sent to the Oregonian, June 5, 2011
Susan Nielson ("Oregon lawmakers teeter on anti-schools ledge," June 5) argues that Oregon should keep the state writing test to prevent skimping on writing and critical thinking and prevent narrowing the curriculum.
In a Guest Column in the Oregonian on June 1, Joanne Yatvin, former president of the National Council of Teachers of English, explained why writing assessment is a "delusion."
Most evaluations of writing test papers are based on writing style and formal accuracy. Research shows that most of the ability to write coherently and accurately is absorbed from reading. Thus, if we want more coherent and more accurate writing, we should invest in libraries and encourage wide reading.
Actual writing (and rewriting) help us solve problems and thereby stimulates new learning. Writing tests don't measure students' ability to use writing in this way.
There is, as Dr. Yatvin notes, "no connection between testing writing … and learning how to write better."
Commencement Speaker, Lewis and Clark Graduate School of Education and Counseling, June 5, 2011
Writing Assessment as Delusion
By Joanne Yatvin
Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus, but he is not the Oregon Department of Education. And a statewide writing assessment is not a gift; it's a lump of coal in your stocking. As a retired educator, now an author and educational researcher, I am one of the strongest supporters of having students write that you will ever meet. But I see no connection between testing writing and teaching writing or learning how to write better.
Contrary to the claims of those who support funding the Oregon writing assessment while more and more programs and teachers are cut from school budgets and class sizes grow beyond all reason, this type of testing does not improve instruction. Its main function is to identify common student weaknesses, which, to nobody's surprise, turn out to be spelling, punctuation and grammar, and to classify students as competent or incompetent. Telling teachers, students and parents what they already know -- at the cost of millions of dollars -- serves no educational purpose. It is just one more example of "weighing the cow" in the vain hope that doing so will make it produce more milk.
I am not saying that writing instruction in our schools is exemplary -- although in some I've visited, it is -- only that testing doesn't help. Instead, I'd like to see the money allocated for tests spent on teacher training and improving school libraries.
My first recommendation stems from noticing that currently many teachers teach writing formulaically: Start your piece with a question or a strong assertion; be sure to make a thesis statement; provide supporting details; use lots of adjectives; end with a summary or a restatement of your thesis. Then, revise. Any student concentrating on those directions isn't free to write authentically. The teachers who teach that way need some instruction to help them understand what good writing is and how to facilitate it in their students.
This leads to explaining my second recommendation. Good writing comes from reading and being read to, from being continually exposed to the forms, language, knowledge and opinions of both fiction and nonfiction writers. I will never forget learning that essential lesson as a high school English teacher, when my first-grade son came home and showed me a story he'd written, "The Bat Who Eats Children." It was a wild, imaginative piece, fully formed and technically correct, that clearly grew out of his intimate knowledge of fairy tales. Because of that knowledge and its steady growth through reading, none of his teachers -- from kindergarten through college -- got gray hairs teaching him spelling, punctuation, sentence structure or what to put in his introductory paragraphs.
Joanne Yatvin lives in Southwest Portland. She is an adjunct professor and supervisor of student teachers at the Portland State University Graduate School of Education.