Designing Writing Assignments: Preparing for Standardized Testing

Book Cover of Designing Writing AssignmentsTraci Gardner begins her fifth chapter of Designing Writing Assignments, “Preparing for Standardized Testing,” with a sentence that sums up my own feeling about standardized writing assessments: “The prompts that students face on standardized writing tests are the antithesis of effective writing assignments” (67). Seeing as how they haven’t contacted me about it in a few years, I suppose it’s safe to disclose that I graded for the SAT in the first year that the essay portion of the test was added. I did it because I wanted to know what the College Board was looking for. I can tell you that the prompts are almost universally broad and, in my opinion, bad. Students’ guidance on using examples instructs them to draw from their personal experience, studies, and history. The prompts were often a quote from a famous person, and the student needs to respond either agreeing or disagreeing. In addition, students have 25 minutes to craft a well-developed essay. I know more than once I have told my own students, sadly, that in order to do well on the SAT essay, they need to forget the most important thing I’ve taught them about good writing—that it’s a process that requires planning and revision and, most importantly, time.

Gardner quotes Gregory Shafer1, who describes the effects of such testing as causing “students [to] abandon certain ideas about writing and embrace more reductive and less active approaches” (67), which is certainly what I’ve noticed about these kinds of essays. After a while, there was a sameness that crept in that ultimately made it impossible for me to do the job. I was not grading fast enough, and my accuracy (my score compared with the score given on random graded essays that were included to improve score validity) dropped.

Now that I’ve read this chapter, I will have a different and much better approach to helping my students do well on the SAT. Gardner has students discuss their experiences with timed writings first. The next step is to discuss other types of writing and their processes so they can “identify writing strategies they can use in test situations” (69). In scaffolding the process for standardized test writing, Gardner guides students to see that they “always have a process to compose their texts” (69). Obviously much more helpful than telling them to forget what they’ve learned about good writing!

Gardner’s suggestion of taking class time to understand the prompts through exploring samples in class is excellent. I’ve done that before, and it was great for helping students unpack the prompt so they could figure out what they were being asked to do. Her process for unpacking the question is great:

  • asking students to identify the audience and purpose behind the prompts (going beyond the simplistic answer of the testing company, of course)
  • having students identify what readers will look for and how they can present themselves as experts on the issue
  • demonstrating how to search through each writing prompt for significant words—both those that give clues to the content expected in response and those that suggest the structure and genre required
  • showing students how to find clues to the content and scope required by each prompt as well as to the organization and development that will be necessary for the response (70)

Gardner also includes a great handout that she gives students to help with this process. I would also suggest a book I’ve used in the past that does a good job helping students in this area and also has lots of sample questions on the usage portion of the SAT as well: Sadlier-Oxford’s Grammar and Writing for Standardized Tests.

Gardner also suggests exploring rubrics with students and reading models, discussing the ways in which the models successfully meet expectations set forth in the rubrics. The College Board Web site has sample papers for students to explore for these purposes, and it was a great exercise to discuss rubrics and read model papers when I did it with my class.

Gardner describes helping students construct their own “mental writing kits” for the test situation. They should include what they need, so each student’s writing kit will differ. She shares one student’s writing kit on p. 73. It contains items such as “Begin with attention-getter and end with ‘So what?'” and “A/an for count and the for noncount.” Gardner also suggests that if students are given space for prewriting or notes or are allowed to write in the test booklet, they should write their writing kits down in that space and circle key words in the prompt, which is a another suggestion the Sadlier-Oxford book I mentioned has students employ as part of an exercise. I really do love this idea of a sort of Swiss army knife or toolkit. I created a presentation as part of a Schools Attuned workshop I participated in that uses a similar strategy for helping students be successful in language arts.

In all, I think the processes Gardner describes for helping students prepare for standardized tests are sound and helpful, even if the writing tasks themselves are not. I don’t imagine that standardized tests are going anywhere, and students do need to prepare for them. I would hate to see writing instructors focus on formulaic writing so that students are prepared for standardized tests at the expense of really learning how to write well, and I feel Gardner explains how to avoid that pitfall well. I have one more chapter in this book, and I hope to be able to read it and reflect on it here tomorrow.

1Shafer, Gregory. “Standardized Testing and the College Composition Instructor.” Teaching English in the Two-Year College. 32.3 (Mar. 2005): 238-46.

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Week in Reflection, April 28-May 2

Our Spring Break was last week, so I didn’t post a reflection.  As this was the week of our return to school, and we have also entered that final stretch of the year, I’m not sure either I or the students were as plugged in as usual.

My seniors basically have two weeks left because our school allows them to finish early.  Next week and the week after, they will be working on a final paper for me.  This week, we finished watching A Streetcar Named Desire, and I was struck again by Brando’s performance.  You probably know this bit of trivia, but Brando was the sole member of the core cast not to receive an Academy Award, though he was nominated.  Vivian Leigh won Best Actress for her portrayal of Blanche; Kim Hunter won Best Supporting Actress for her portrayal of Stella; and Karl Malden won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of Mitch.  The Best Actor award that year, however, went to Humphrey Bogart for his performance in The African Queen.

My ninth grade students are working through grammar.  One class finished up phrases and started on clauses.  The other class learned about active and passive voice and began discussion of Toni Morrison’s first novel, The Bluest Eye.

The tenth grade writing class I teach presented Power Point presentations.  So often our kids add animations, busy backgrounds, and too much text, then read the text rather than use it as a guide for the audience.  Despite my instructing students on the perils of Death by Power Point, a few of their presentations included some of the problems I’ve mentioned, and I am frustrated that I somehow was not able to communicate how to avoid these issues to my students.  Also, I am frustrated by the fact that in order to be successful, they had to unlearn bad Power Point habits, which may explain why all of them weren’t successful.  We need to teach kids how to use Power Point correctly from the start.  I think too many teachers are a little too impressed by all the bells and whistles and actually reward students for making cluttered, busy, and ultimately unreadable presentations because they themselves don’t know how to do some of the things the students do, thus the teachers assume it’s hard and took a lot of time and effort.  Let’s face it, our students have become accustomed to being rewarded for style over substance.

The last two days of the week, my writing class began a unit on SAT preparation and practice.  I have evaluated SAT essays in the past, and as I haven’t done so for quite some time, I suppose it’s safe to disclose this fact.  Students generally find this unit to be very helpful.  I have been using Sadlier-Oxford’s helpful Grammar and Writing for Standardized Tests as a guide; I highly recommend this book, as it focuses on the SAT’s writing section (error correction, sentence and paragraph correction, and essay).

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