Thursday, June 30, 2016

Standardized Testing and the Decline of Quality Writing

First of all, let me say, as someone who is in education as well as the publishing world, I am not a fan of standardized testing. Students already don't have enough time in the classroom and to fill it with tests to "gather data" for weeks on end just suck up the time. There is also another reason why I am not a fan of the standardized tests, especially the newer ones since the wonderful "No Child Left Behind" mandate (sorry for the politics here). Let me explain.

Prior to the newer standardized tests, we had those wonderful bubble tests such as the California Assessment Test. The skills on those tests were all based on what the kids learned that year. These were far from perfect because they really didn't assess understanding, but if the students had simply been exposed to the skill. These tests also really only assessed how well students could take a test. So we had a change to these newer assessments.

The current tests are looking at the students ability to "answer questions" through written answers. The goal here is that we are seeing "how well they can apply the tools they have learned" even if they might not have covered that specific skill  in their class. Please understand this is a simplified version.

Now here is the problem and the connection we have to the decline of quality writing. In the case of standardized testing, because teachers (and certainly the schools) were rewarded for the higher test scores, teachers spent (and continue to do so) countless hours teaching students how to take the test and answer the best way. They will go to the extreme level of creating a formula answer and structure for how each of the answers should be written to maximize the score. I saw at one junior high school teachers with the actual formula on the wall written as a fill in the blank model. "Blah, Blah, Blah [insert question idea here] blah, blah, blah [insert result here] blah, blah, blah [insert your opinion here].

And this is not just in the basic classes. I stepped in to teach a 12th grade Senior Level AP Literature and Composition course and the prior instructor actually had outlines for full papers written as these fill in the blank models.

But you still ask, what is the connection to the decline of quality writing? What we are seeing today are writers who are doing things to craft stories because they think it will sell. They are putting things into their novels because a workshop instructor or a best selling workbook said to start your story this way. We are seeing this in query letters where people are literally following a formula to craft that letter that is guaranteed to get them a book contract. What we are not seeing is any of the critical thinking skills.

In simple terms, people are not thinking. about what they are writing or why they are writing it, instead they are treating novel writing as a formula. We are seeing this not simply with the structures of the stories, but even so far as the word choices and sentence structures.

This should not be a shock either. When you attend conferences the huge emphasis is on the sale end of the publishing business, very similar to the standardized testing approach that focuses not on the learning but on the higher scores. Workshops focus on networking to increase sales, how to create the best selling Kindle book and the like. But it goes even further. If there are craft sessions, these create the impression of how to create a novel like a formula. I saw one at a conference that showed writers how to write a best selling fan fiction novel.

Now, is there really a direct correlation? Probably not. But there are certainly far too many similarities here. The quality of the writing is a direct result of people thinking more about how to sell the novel instead of writing a good one.

And, before some of you start screaming "but that is what the publishers are putting out there!" Let me explain one thing. They are working with what they have. If this is what you are seeing on the bookshelves, consider the ones they have rejected! Even here at the agency, I have found I have requested less projects now than when I first opened the agency and this was not because I was "trying to build my client list." The writing is just not strong is far too many cases.

So, if you are a writer getting ready to make the big jump, please take the time to examine your writing. Have you crafted it through a formula? Have you structured it because this is how you were told to do it, or because that is how Author X did it? Do you know why you are really doing what you do? Consider this before you hit send. Please!


  1. Maybe instead of rejection letters, you should grade the query letters you receive and return to sender. But seriously, if writers took all the advice offered on writing boards and at conferences as gospel, pretty soon we would be hard-pressed to find anything original or unique at our book stores. And forget about voice!

  2. This was a refreshing post. As a former teacher, I've always been thankful I took early retirement just before No Child Left Behind came into being. I went back and subbed for friends off and on for about a year and a half, while adjusting to all the free time in my new time frame, and I was appalled by the energy that went into preparing for test-taking rather than encouraging creativity and love of language or real appreciation for books.