Now That the SAT's Writing Section is Gone, It's Time to Rethink How We Teach Composition
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While many people would define the basics in education as reading, writing and arithmetic, writing has always held a secondary status to reading and math—notably in terms of the focus of standardized testing.
Prompted by the announcement from the College Board that the SAT would be revamped in 2016, including dropping the writing section added in 2005, the New York Times has produced a discussion in its Room for Debate section called, Can Writing Be Assessed?"
Although the importance of writing in both K-12 and higher education is receiving necessary consideration as a result of the College Board's decision, attention once again remains too narrowly focused on testing, and how best to administer a college entrance exam. But unlike the moment when the SAT added writing to the test (one that heralded only doom for the field of composition), this moment provides a rich opportunity to re-examine writing and the teaching of writing—because dropping writing from the SAT may prove to be a positive watershed moment for both.
First, let me offer a few points of context.
I am 53 and have been teaching for 31 years, most of that life and career dedicated to writing and teaching writing. I read and write every day—much of that reading and writing is serious in that it is connected to my professional work. But I also read and write extensively for pleasure, including my life as a poet.
Two facts about my writing life: 1) I write because I must, not because I choose to; and 2) I am always learning to write because writing is a journey, not something one can acquire fully or finish.
I strongly embrace the foundational belief that writing is an essential aspect of human liberty, autonomy, agency, and dignity; this is part of the grounding of my work as a critical educator. Living and learning must necessarily include reading, rereading, writing, and rewriting the world (see Paulo Freire, bell hooks and Maxine Greene, just to mention a few).
Writing is also integral to academics, in terms of learning and scholarship. Writing is part of the learning process, but it is also a primary vehicle for scholarly expression.
Next, considering the importance of writing in human agency and education, any effort to standardize the assessment of writing or to use writing assessments as gatekeepers for any child’s access to further education are essentially corrupt and corrupting.
Adding writing to the SAT in 2005 was one of several powerful contexts that have seriously crippled the teaching of writing in formal education. Those forces include also:
- A historical and lingering conflation of “teaching grammar” (teaching correctness) with teaching writing.
- The entire accountability era begun in the early 1980s (see Applebee and Langer and Why Are We (Still) Failing Writing Instruction?).
All of the above fail the fundamental value in writing because they distract from the process and act of writing, as well as misread writing as a fixed skill that can be attained at some designated point along the formal education continuum.
As the faculty director of first-year seminars at my university, I focus primarily on how we address the teaching of writing in those seminars (and throughout the curriculum). That role has highlighted for me a lesson I also learned while teaching high school English for 18 years: Many teachers, including English teachers, do not see themselves as writing teachers and often expect that students should come to their courses already proficient writers.
Essentially, then, using a writing assessment of some sort to identify students as "college-ready" writers perpetuates the idea that we can and should have students demonstrating some fixed writing outcomes before we allow them access to higher education. This presumes in some ways that college will not be a place where people can and should learn to write.