Monday, December 08, 2014

Want to Pass a Writing Test? Memorize an Essay

A July 12, 2013 New York Times Magazine piece by Curtis Sittenfeld about her time, while a creative writing graduate student, tutoring a woman who needed to pass the writing test on her GED exam, describes an unsuccessful two year struggle to pass the exam:
During the two years my tutee and I worked together, she tried to pass the English section of the G.E.D. several times and didn't succeed, always unable to write a sufficiently coherent essay. It crossed my mind from time to time that maybe I wasn't her ideal tutor. For one thing, my understanding of grammar was more instinctive than formal. I didn't think of, say, gerunds or reflexive pronouns as gerunds or reflexive pronouns; I just knew how to use them correctly, which wasn't the same as knowing how to clearly explain them.
Sittenfeld got a job on graduation, and moved before her student passed the GED, under the guidance of a different tutor. But she had become friends with her tutee, who, after passing, explained to Sittenfeld her strategy:
Over the phone, my tutee told me about her new tutor’s approach to the English test: together they would construct a vaguely worded essay. My tutee would memorize it, and depending upon the test’s essay question, she would alter it slightly. Weeks after I moved away, she used this method, and it worked; she finally passed.
And that seems to me to be the issue so often in teaching writing. Learning, about gerunds and reflexive pronouns wouldn't necessarily have helped  pass the writing test. The test isn't about gerunds and reflective pronouns; it's about writing a formulaic essay that's predictable and acceptable enough to be easily scored and passed.

There are two lessons in this. 

Lesson 1. If You're Teaching Writing, Let Students Write

I want to be clear -- I don't mean to criticize Sittenfeld here. She did the best she could with what she knew and with her experience as a 25 year old volunteer. But the lesson from her experience I encourage is this: Let writers write. 

I do a lot of work with teachers of developmental writing, and they often do stress the need for their students to be able to know grammar and usage terms and rules, so much so that the students don't really get as much writing done as they would in first year writing courses. They do more workbook exercises, here lectures on grammar, read grammar handbooks before and during writing. So grammar and rules are first, and finding something to say a distant second.

We don't know enough about how Sittenfeld taught to know what the balance of workbook to actual writing was in her tutoring, but the attention to error and rules before writing is a common practice still in developmental writing courses. And it's the kind of attention that makes it harder for students to write well because it leads with anxiety by focusing students first on perceived deficiencies. 

The place for her to get tutee to have gotten to, is the place Sittenfeld describes for herself when she writes, "For one thing, my understanding of grammar was more instinctive than formal. I didn't think of, say, gerunds or reflexive pronouns as gerunds or reflexive pronouns; I just knew how to use them correctly."  

That balance of mainly playing and referencing would translate to mainly writing and then referencing a handbook or learning a rule for grammar or usage as needed. But too much developmental writing focuses on the rule book and exercises first, not play, not a reason to want to know the rules. It's the opposite of the balanced and explicit-about-transfer approach recommended by the NCTE's Assembly for the Teaching of English Grammar.

Lesson 2. If the Test is Stupid, Undermine it By Teaching Tricks for Passing It

If your students are going to be assessed by readers trained to read like a machine, or a machine trained to match the reading and scoring of humans normed to read like a machine, discover what the testing regime will pass and teach students to mimic that. Don't let the weight of such tests, meaningless often in what they measure, stand in the way of students moving forward. Sittenfeld's student needed the GED to get into cosmetology school, and was motivated enough to do that for over two years, working through and past GED test attempts until she got it. Most students lack either that resilience or the means to keep trying even if they were a mind to. 

That the student passed by memorizing a formulaic essay, a strategy that probably alleviated the stress from prior failures, is not a condemnation of the student nor Sittenfeld's work as a tutor, but rather of the inanity of the test. The strategy worked because the test design allows and encourages it. 

But if testing is going to treat students so shabbily as to call for the kind of formulaic writing only ever used to pass writing tests, then the tests what they deserve for not being valid in the first place.


Russ Hunt said...

Yes, yes, yes. But . . . that writing we need to "let them do" has to be about something and serve some authentic purpose beyond passing a test (even if it's the test of our reading as teacher as examiner). It has to function. Like infants learning to talk, the utterer needs to be doing something she wants to do.

Pam Sawyer said...

I guess my question concerns the future of writing for the student who memorized the essay. How will this person be successful in a college classroom or in a career?

Nick Carbone said...

Russ, I agree. The student worked over two years and several attempts at the writing test to get her GED, and the GED was the thing she wanted, the test being a hurdle.

Which takes me to Pam's concern. Pam, any student who can work that hard and that long to find a way past this test so she could get on with her life and get her cosmetology degree, that person will succeed.

I would also hazard that as she comes to need to write for more authentic purposes in her life, she'll find a way to do that. The thing about the test she passed, in the end, is that it's so baseline and simple, it doesn't really measure, let alone prepare her, for future writing. leads to "Reconceptualizing Writing Curricula: What We Know and Can Use" by George Hillocks. It opens with a description of the kind of test the GED likely was, how those are scored, and how narrow and artificial the writing type is.

If a test can be passed by memorizing a form, and three vague things to say about whatever topic is given, then the test is a disservice.