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In too many Virginia classrooms, though, the predictable progeny of machine-graded testing is rearing its fearsome head: teachers teaching only to the test.


That’s not exactly fair. The SOLs themselves aren’t falling down on the job. The problem is the teach-to-the-test approach adopted by administrations and faculties in the face of SOL testing. If it isn’t on the test, you won’t find it in the public school classroom today. In most elementary and middle schools, the school play is a thing of the past. Music and art projects are twisted and crammed into curriculum-fulfilling shapes that don’t bring “beauty” as the first word to mind.

“Precisely,” you say, “the SOLs were designed to shed just these sorts of distracting extras from the bloated curriculum — to get our students back to basics.” Well, what about basics like writing? And penmanship.

Yes, penmanship. They threw that out, didn’t they, during the flower-power ’60s? Thank goodness, the SOLs right that wrong, returning our kids to the worthwhile effort of polishing a flowing, Spenserian script. Sorry, the SOLs give lip service to handwritten requirements, but handwriting is not assessed on the “bubble-in” multiple-choice SOL tests. In most districts, public school fourth-graders who can fluidly write in cursive are as scarce as cloistered monks. Primitive, functional block printing is as good as it gets.

Which brings us back around to the New SAT. Twenty-five minutes worth of essay, scratched out by our crab-clawed 16-year-olds. The College Board will hire legions of grading mercenaries, college professors, graduate students and high school teachers, who will grind through great piles of these essays at breakneck speed. Think penmanship won’t count?

And yet clarity of ink on page pales in importance next to clarity of thought. The College Board puts it well:

“Writing is a core skill needed for success in both college and the workplace. Research has shown that a student’s ability to write a first draft of a short, timed essay relates positively to the student’s ability to perform successfully in college courses that require writing. The addition of the writing section will reinforce the importance of writing skills throughout a student’s education and support the academic achievement of all students, bolstering their chances for academic success in college. The essay will measure the student’s skill in developing a point of view on an issue. Students must first think critically about the issue presented in the essay assignment, forming their own individual perspective on the topic. Then they must develop that point of view, using reasoning and evidence based on their own experiences, readings, or observations to support their ideas.”

Hard to argue with that. In fact, you can’t — it’s on the test.

The problem is that in order to perform well in a 25-minute test, the kids need English fluency — the ability to think quickly in writing, to get clear thoughts on the page. This skill can only be developed one way, through lots and lots of writing. In too many Virginia classrooms, though, the predictable progeny of machine-graded testing is rearing its fearsome head: teachers teaching only to the test. If your kids are writing little else but very short essays on squishy topics like “Your Best Day Ever” or “How I Would Change the World,” then beware. They are receiving test-only instruction.

Can we do anything about this? Is it too late? Yes, we can, and no, it isn’t. We know how to teach children to write well. We’ve simply shoved this instruction aside to focus on multiple-choice testing. The New SAT is a bugle call sounding a strategic retreat. We need to get back — right now — to composition, with significant time devoted to writing every day. Start with a bit of writing yourself. Send letters to your school board representative, your principal and your representatives in the House of Delegates. Let them know that the New SAT train is leaving the station, and you don’t want your children left behind. S

Andrew J. Dolson is a local attorney.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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