Now That the SAT's Writing Section is Gone, It's Time to Rethink How We Teach Composition

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:

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.

In much the same way that the accountability paradigm is misguided in fixating on outcomes over conditions, seeing writing as a measurable skill useful for gatekeeping college entrance shifts our focus away from what experiences students need so that their continual learning to write in college can be better supported.

Yes, student outcomes matter, and samples of student writing in the right contexts may provide some powerful evidence of what students know as writers and what students need as writers. But something in the addition of writing to the 2005 SAT must not be forgotten: One draft, timed and prompted writing, scored by rubrics, and even by computers, works against the important goals of writing.

Just as feedback is preferable to grading in the teaching of writing (see my chapter here), the key question is not if writing can be assessed, but rather, how do we ensure that all students have access to the common experiences necessary at all point along the formal education experience?

What are those common experiences—and once we implement those, how do we document those experiences in order to support students having equitable access to both higher education and the continual "learning to write" process that must be central throughout higher education?

Some thoughts on common experiences:

  • Rich and multi-genre/media reading experiences that include choice and assigned reading. Students need to develop genre awareness and discipline-specific awareness as readers.
  • Rich and multi-genre/media writing experiences that include the following: choice and assigned writing, peer and teacher feedback and conferences, workshop experiences drafting short and extended multi-draft compositions, and discipline-specific writing experiences.
  • Analysis of and experiences with a wide range of citation and documentation style sheets for integrating primary and secondary sources in original writing.
  • Continual consideration of expectations for writing both in academic/school settings and real world settings—challenging school-based norms such as thesis sentences and template essay formats.

While this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list, the point is that instead of seeking effective ways to assess test-based writing, or continuing to explore tests and metrics that correlate strongly with actual writing proficiencies, we must commit ourselves to all students having the sorts of common experiences with writing necessary to grow as writers—both for their own agency and their academic pursuits.

If we can commit to these conditions of learning instead of outcomes, we should then find ways to gather artifacts of these common experiences to use in place of metrics, as we guide students through—and not gatekeep them from—formal education.

A version of this essay originally ran on the Becoming Radical blog.


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