Study Great Ideas, But Teach to the Test

Four letters to the editor in response to Michael Winerip’s recent article on teaching to the test:

Ms. Karnes learned all sorts of exercises to get children excited about writing, get them writing daily about what they care about and then show them how they can take one of those short, personal pieces and use it as the nucleus for a sophisticated, researched essay.
“We learned how to develop good writing from the inside, starting with calling the child’s voice out,” said Ms. Karnes, who got an A in the university course. “One of the major points was, good writing is good thinking. That’s why writing formulas don’t work. Formulas don’t let kids think; they kill a lot of creativity in writing.”
And so, when Ms. Karnes returns to Allendale High School to teach English this fall, she will use the new writing techniques she learned and abandon the standard five-paragraph essay formula. Right?
“Oh, no,” said Ms. Karnes. “There’s no time to do creative writing and develop authentic voice. That would take weeks and weeks. There are three essays on the state test and we start prepping right at the start of the year. We have to teach to the state test” (the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, known as MEAP).

Read the full article here. Read the letters to the editor by clicking on the link:

To the Editor:

Re “Study Great Ideas, but Teach to the Test,” by Michael Winerip (Education page, July 13):

It is argued that standardized writing tests hurt the teaching of writing because teachers are forced to use the five-paragraph formula to help students pass even though it kills creativity and doesn’t let them think.

Scott Stowell

The five-paragraph formula is not ideal; it’s not even the ideal formula, but it’s better than nothing. So, too, with standardized writing tests.

Let’s be honest: Because of the No Child Left Behind Act’s testing requirement, kids are writing more, the key to improving writing skills, because if they don’t, they fail the standardized test.

American society places great emphasis on individual liberty and intellectual creativity, but students can’t be great creative writers if they are not technically competent.

Strong writers don’t need to use the five-paragraph formula; low-proficiency writers, and most school students, are better off using the defective five-paragraph formula than nothing.

Matt White
Swarthmore, Pa., July 13, 2005
The writer is director of the Writers Lab, a company that offers resources, books and training to improve results on the essay section of standardized tests.

To the Editor:

Michael Winerip cites the dilemma that many teachers face when they think they must teach the five-paragraph essay format for their students to be successful on standardized tests that include essay writing.

The College Board believes that students who follow this format may be denying themselves opportunities to write to their full potential.

The SAT essay is carefully designed to measure a student’s mastery of many different elements of writing, with prompts to stimulate critical thinking about complex issues.

Critical thinking involves dealing with the complexity of an issue, not oversimplifying in the rush to produce an introduction, three “fitting” examples and a conclusion in 25 minutes.

In fact, students may be more likely to demonstrate critical thinking if they give one or two extended examples, taking the time to explain interactions between ideas.

Students will be better prepared for college writing success by learning formats that go beyond the five-paragraph essay.

Kathleen Williams
V.P., Office of Academic
Initiatives and Test Development
The College Board
New York, July 13, 2005

To the Editor:

“Study Great Ideas, but Teach to the Test” illustrates a dilemma: the needs of students to learn standard forms of communication sometimes interfere with what teachers love to do (teach creative writing).

But just as there is a place for dessert in a well-balanced meal, there is a place for creative writing in a well-balanced curriculum. In both instances, that place is usually toward the end – after the part that is less delicious but more nutritious.

The point is furthered by the fact that creativity by definition involves playing with conventions. Therefore, one cannot be creative without some level of mastery of the conventional.

K-8 may be a time during which the educational needs of children allow for less creative writing than some might like, especially for those children who have not yet been properly nurtured with regard to constructing the standard five-paragraph essay.

Paul Strand
Richland, Wash., July 13, 2005
The writer is an associate professor of psychology at Washington State University.

To the Editor:

Michael Winerip is concerned that formulaic writing strategies impede the development of students’ thinking skills. I share his concern but question his diagnosis.

The “five-paragraph essay” is not the root of the problem; in fact, it’s a reasonably good way to develop a little facility handling supporting evidence.

Like training wheels, the five-paragraph essay has its place. The real question is how to help kids move beyond it.

Creative departures from the five-paragraph formula should be encouraged, but there is little evidence that creative flights, as such, impart clarity, depth or cogency of thought.

The ability to organize and evaluate reasons (logic) was once the centerpiece of a good education. Sadly, it has been displaced by content-centered courses: courses that teach kids what to think rather than how to think. The solution is a return to thinking-skills instruction.

Andrew Norman
Pittsburgh, July 14, 2005
The writer develops thinking-skills curriculums for high school students.