In spite of its problems, the FCAT has nine lives — maybe more. The writing test has had me grumbling to myself for years now, so I am moved by recent news to make my complaints loud and clear. I've gone from talking to myself to this odd interview with myself in the interests of educational reform.
Why do you want to dump the writing part of the FCAT?
When something does more harm than good, it's time to try something else. In the area of writing, we know what works, but high-stakes testing has crowded out effective teaching.
What is the best way to teach writing?
Students must be encouraged to write every day, from kindergarten through college. They need teachers who can lead them through the steps of the writing process, from idea generation to revision and publication. They need individual time with a teacher to improve their work.
How do you accomplish those things?
In a workshop environment that is highly organized so that students can practice the behaviors that are the signs of a truly literate person. Students must spend time in school reading literature that is interesting and thought-provoking. They must write in many different forms and for different purposes. And, here's a key: They must learn how to talk about reading and writing, about how to make meaning. Read, write, talk. Simple as that.
Does the FCAT writing test do any good?
It's probably true that some teachers in some schools would not teach writing at all if the test were not hanging over their heads. As for the test itself, there is a legitimate — but limited — benefit in teaching kids to write quickly and on demand. And from a prompt.
Then what's the problem?
Here's my list, and this criticism is not new:
• The high stakes imposed from above wind up placing too much time and effort on teaching to the demands of one particular test. That throws literacy education way out of balance. Lots of things that could and should be taught and learned will not be because everyone is working in the shadow of the test.
• None of the stakeholders — except the powers that be in Tallahassee — seem to have any faith in the test. Skeptics have become cynics, and they include principals, teachers, parents and the students themselves. Suddenly everyone is focused on the problems in administering and evaluating the test, rather than on the quality and character of learning.
• Perhaps most important, the FCAT works against the idea that writing (like reading) should be a lifetime skill for all students (and citizens!). Literacy expert Frank Smith writes that becoming literate is like joining a club. We know that many adults opted out of the literacy club long ago, and that students are vulnerable to any evidence that they don't belong. A single grade on a single test can have that discouraging effect.
So what would you do?
I would propose a three-year moratorium on FCAT writing. Without the test, the key players would have the time, money and human capital to create a new educational initiative. Let's call it Florida: A State of Writers, or Writing in the Sunshine.
How could you form such a state?
It would grow from the bottom up: school by school, district by district. On the first day, I would hang a banner on the front of the school that reads "A School for Writers." I would announce that every child in every school will write something every day, and that during the year each child will see his or her best work published in some form.
Instead of teaching the test, language arts teachers could now engage the students in the practice of reading, writing and talking. So that students get enough practice and feedback, I would enlist community support in the form of a booster club for writers. Why sports boosters and not literacy boosters? That might help us reach parents, assisting them in making the child's home a more literate place.
What about the teachers?
I would mobilize the best and most confident writing teachers in the system and deputize them. Their job now would be not only to teach writing but to become leaders and true professionals. They would be organized to work with less experienced teachers on the development of their writing and classroom skills. Writing teachers would be encouraged to be writers, and the published work of teachers would be celebrated.
Without the test, how do you assess the students?
I would create writing assessments far more rigorous than a once-a-year test. Assessment — from the Latin word "to sit beside" — would occur every day in our daily writing workshops. Teachers would confer with students on the progress of a story or essay. Students would learn how to consult with other students. Some would be encouraged to coach younger or less experienced writers.
Every year a student would develop a writing portfolio. It could contain many things, but especially a collection of the student's best work, examples of revision and other steps in the writing process, and work that demonstrates how multiple drafts of a single story were created, discussed and edited.
Inside the portfolio would be written evaluations of the student's work, divided against two categories: What Works and What Needs Work. Specific competencies (such as using illustrative examples) can easily be drawn from the grading rubrics of FCAT. A summary of a student's assessment would carry over to the following year, when students would get started on a new portfolio.
What do we do about grammar, spelling, punctuation?
Students seem to be weak in their language mechanics. But guess what? So is everyone else.
We seemed confused about whether 45 minutes of student writing on a test constitutes a finished work — or only a rough draft, where we could tolerate more mechanical errors. Look, when I wrote my book The Glamour of Grammar, I had some of the best editors in the world backing me up — and I still made some mistakes. I doubt there are 20 members of Congress who could accurately explain the differences between "lie" and "lay." So let's not fall into the myth of the Golden Age, that there was a time in the past when students could spell and punctuate correctly.
Liberated from the burden of teaching the test, teachers could place more emphasis on the elements of the English language. I'd run students through skills and drills. I would involve parents, whose own skills may be deficient. I would form competitive grammar teams. I would make sure I taught those mechanical aspects of language, not in isolation but in the context of making meaning as a reader and a writer. Students would learn how to revise, edit and proofread their own work.
In a school for writers, students would even learn to love the semicolon!
Since 1979, Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at the Poynter Institute, which owns the Tampa Bay Times, working with young children to Pulitzer Prize-winning authors. He is the creator of Writers Camp, a summer program for students and teachers that ran for 30 years. He is the author or editor of 17 books about writing, language and journalism.