Breaking through the “Chain of Blame:” Perceived Gaps in High school Preparation for College Composition Part III: Standardized Testing

Today we will continue with my final installment on the topic of the “Chain of Blame:” that supreme baddie, standardized testing. Just the mention of these words is enough to set off in most of us a sweaty-palmed nervous twitch. I don’t think I’ve ever actually met someone who thinks standardized tests is a good idea. So…why do we insist upon them? I’ll let you think about that one.

Standardization at its best

Standardization at its best

While secondary teachers and their time constrictions surely represent one aspect of this dilemma, standardized testing acts as the biggest inhibitor in preparing students for college. In the era before testing became education’s “go-to” resource for ensuring “quality education,” schools focused more on critical and creative thinking skills that lend themselves better to the complex process of writing expected in college. Standardized testing, on the other hand, promotes the formulaic, repetitive, memorization type of learning that makes it hard for students to generate ideas and make connections as writers. Since the advent of “No Child Left Behind” from the Bush era, the American education system has been scrambling like never before to fulfill the prescribed order for test results. With the threat of losing desperately needed government funding, principals have no choice but to put the pressure on teachers for better results. Therefore, a dissonance between high school and college has grown bigger than ever before; the very goals for outcomes in education have shifted between the two institutions: “High school education is designed to be standardized and quantifiable. College education is designed to be theoretical” (Fanetti 78).

As Fanetti states in her article, “Closing the Gap between High School Writing Instruction and College Writing Expectations,” the very idea of what it means to be educated differs vastly between secondary schools and colleges:

High school students learn to follow a specific set of rules; college students learn that there are no rules—or, better, that the rules change daily. Instead of the detailed rubrics, repeated drilling, and objective testing they knew in high school, college students find themselves largely autonomous and left to figure out what’s expected of them on their own (78).

The imposition of standardized testing in the English secondary classroom has caused a major shift in the type of writing taught to our students, as well as the way students view education altogether. Obviously, this need to shift student thinking from standardized test takers to critical thinkers takes time, and adds to the issue of student preparedness for college: “…assess the blame where it belongs: in the fundamental incompatibility between the product model of standardized testing as quality control and the process model of student-centered learning. In short, standardized testing is antithetical to real learning, lifelong or otherwise” (Fanetti 81).

In my experience as a secondary teacher, I taught all grades (9-12) at all levels (both regular and honors) and the Maryland state test, known as the HSA, reigned supreme. Our English supervisor admitted to us that even if we taught two brand new skills from our curriculum every single day, with no time to go back and reinforce any skills, we would never have enough time to teach all of the skills necessary for our students to pass the tests. In our county, fifty percent of my teacher evaluation came from test scores. As a non-tenured teacher, my career depended upon teaching my kids how to take a test. Learning in my classroom became about “paying attention because you will need this for the HSA” rather than giving my students space and time to grow as critical thinkers and explorers of knowledge. Once they removed the writing portion from the HSA, guess which skills were pushed to the wayside and taught only “if time allowed?” You guessed it—composition skills.

Since I had an extremely limited time to work with students on their writing skills for their ninth and tenth grade years, it was unsurprising to see juniors struggling to write a paragraph. Not only have their teachers failed to develop their skills as writers (leaving them basically at an eighth grade level—or worse, depending on the same time/testing constraints facing middle school teachers), but all the focus on memorization and testing strategies has left them lacking in critical thinking and wiped out most of their ability to thinking creatively. Their writing becomes less like writing, and more like “longhand test-taking” (Fanetti 78).

Unfortunately for them, junior year is typically the time when most students take the granddaddy of standardized tests—the SAT. The SAT, unlike the state test, contains an essay portion. Some students will also face a writing intensive exam if they decide to take AP courses. In order to make up for lost time, teachers at this point will typically shuffle to have students memorize the five paragraph essay formula for success on both the SAT and AP exams. As Beil states, “Anecdotal accounts suggest that the twenty-five minute time limit on the SAT may actually force high school teachers to sacrifice creativity and resort to more formulaic writing assignments” (8). These testing writing formulas, while a helpful starting place for beginning writers, become engrained in our students’ minds as the only way to organize an essay. This becomes problematic for them when they get to college and receive poor grades for their limited ability to compose a polished essay. Sommers comments on how unhelpful this strict formulaic teaching of writing can be to students when they encounter the writing process in college: “Somehow these abstract rules about what five-paragraph products should look like do not seem applicable to the problems that this student must confront when revising, nor are the rules specific strategies he could use when revising” (113). The SAT writing formula teaches students to write in this limited structure, but it also encourages them to regurgitate information and “cherry pick” quotations with a sprinkling of “SAT vocabulary words” as a finishing touch. In essence, it teaches them the very worst habits a writer can have: “…secondary teachers feel compelled to teach to the test, and college instructors wish students hadn’t learned so well in high school that an essay is five paragraphs and a thesis statement can only appear as the first or last sentence in the first of those five paragraphs” (Fanetti 79). Unsurprisingly, the college composition teacher heaves a giant sigh as he or she shuffles through twenty carbon copy, hackneyed essays in the beginning of the semester. Yet we wonder why our students are not better prepared as writers?

No longer can we as educators satisfy ourselves to look on as our students suffer at the hands of a system designed to set them up for failure. Or even worse, place the blame on “lazy students” and the shortcomings of their generation. The three main contributors in the creation of this knowledge gap have been identified, yet little has come of this knowledge. College professors continue to lament the shortfalls of secondary educators, maintaining this cycle of blame. Contrary to popular belief, college unpreparedness did not come about recently. Research from the early twentieth century shows the same gap existed then, too. It seems odd that such a glaring issue could exist for a century and have seemingly no attempts at rectification.

While the most obvious solution to the problem would be the elimination of standardized tests, and redefining our idea of what secondary education should be, according to Fanetti (83), realistically this infatuation with test scores will take time to wane before the next craze in education sets in. Also, we cannot do much about overcrowded classrooms and lack of time/resources for teachers as the economy increasingly worsens. However, we as a nation can change the manner in which we prepare secondary English teachers. Colleges can offer more (or in some cases, any) classes on the pedagogy of writing. This will create more effective teachers, which in turn creates more capable student writers. While literature has its purpose, shifting the focus in English classrooms to emphasize composition will have a resounding impact on an interdisciplinary level, too. Secondary schools will produce students with a wider range of rhetorical skills that will make them successful regardless of what discipline they choose to study at the collegiate level.

In addition to changing the way colleges and universities educate their teachers, educators can take another measure to close the gap. Although it may seem small, the best and first step educators need to take is ending the cycle of blame on all levels. As professionals in an extremely challenging and significant field, educators from kindergarten through college need to respect and support one another’s challenges and successes. Instead of placing blame upon the people that came before you, shirking responsibility for the state of student development, educators need to band together and communicate. Rather than retroactively blaming someone else, educators need to be proactive and collaborate with one another.

Nearly all of the research on student preparedness suggests that only through such collaboration can any positive change occur. If educators would simply sit down with one another and discuss the issues at hand, they could take real steps toward bridging the gap. Enders states in his conclusion that collaboration regarding assignments, grading/feedback, and expectations between high school and college educators helped decreased the occurrence of remediation in their students (67). Other studies report similar findings. The lack of communication between secondary and collegiate educators leaves no surprise as to why the gap exists in the first place. Secondary curriculum writers construct curricula based on what they perceive as necessary skills for the college bound student, and teachers do their best to meet these goals while juggling a myriad of other issues. Until the two fields begin having conversations about what students actually need, little progress will be made. Although students will most likely never come to college completely prepared, educators can do more to serve them, but only if we can step out of our separate worlds long enough to work out a solution—together.

Works Cited

Beil, Cheryl, and Melinda Knight. “Understanding the Gap Between High School and College Writing.” Assessment Update 19.6 (2007): 6-8. MLA. Web. April 2012.

Enders, Doug. “Crossing the Divide: A Survey of the High School Activities that Best Prepared Students to Write in College.” The Clearing House 75.2 (2001): 62-67. MLA. Web. 9 April 2012.

Fanetti, Susan, Kathy Bushrow, and David DeWeese. “Closing the Gap between High School Writing Instruction and College Writing Expectations.” English Journal 99.4 (2010): 77-83. MLA. Web. 12 April 2012.

Hoyt, Jeff, and Colleen Sorensen. “High School Preparation, Placement Testing, and College Remediation.” Journal of Developmental Education 25.2 (2001): 26-33. MLA. Web. 11 April 2012.

Murray, Donald. “Teach Writing as a Process Not Product.” Cross-Talk in Comp Theory: A Reader. 3rd Ed. Ed. Victor Villanueva and Kristin Arola. Urbana: NCTE, 2011. 3-6. Print.

Sommers, Nancy. “Responding to Student Writing.” A Sourcebook for Responding to Student Writing. Ed. Richard Straub. Cresskill: Hampton Press, 1999. 107-116. Print.

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About alycemsustko

Reader, writer, catmom extraordinaire
This entry was posted in Research Essay, Scholarly Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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