“Could this be real?"
That question could apply to the Florida Department of Education. It says such an opening line by students writing essays for the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test has become too common, and it has sent threatening letters to a dozen school districts. After years of tailoring school lessons to the FCAT, the wonder is it took this long for similarities of style and phrasing to appear in essays.
For two years, scorers of FCAT essays written by elementary students have noticed the appearance of identical phrases or similar beginnings and endings, no matter the topic. They began with lines such as "I'll never forget the day that …" Or they set up similar scenes — for example, a bright sunny day or a dark stormy night — even when those scenes weren't appropriate.
Last week, the Department of Education mailed a letter to school districts where so-called "template writing" was noticed. And though officials say the letter was not intended to sound punitive, it provides the names of the schools where the trend was observed and notes that state education officials will soon determine "appropriate consequences when template writing is identified." The school districts are Pasco, Manatee, St. Lucie, Brevard, Broward, Duval, Lake, Lee, Martin, Miami-Dade, Orange and Palm Beach.
The point, said Victoria Ash, chief of the state Bureau of K-12 Assessment, is to improve the quality of writing instruction and ensure that students' essays are original work. In some cases, she said, it appears teachers may have taught students to use memorized phrases, scenes, and contrived beginnings and endings on their FCAT essays that the department defines as template writing.
Ash said she can't imagine why teachers would resort to such coaching, unless they think it helps students get started. Here's another theory: The outsized importance of the FCAT results, which are used to grade school performance, has driven some teachers to do whatever it takes to ensure their students complete their essays and get high scores, regardless of whether those tactics improve the students' writing skills and creativity.
For 16 years, Florida students have been tested on essay writing. For much of that time, the classroom lessons used to prepare them for that test forced them into a formulaic mold. Maybe the Department of Education's letter indicates a shift to value creativity as much as structure. We could say look on the bright side — but that would be a template.