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National and State Writing Tests: The Writing Process Betrayed

Posted: 2004-01-07

Imagine what kind of writing you would produce if you could not plan it or revise it. Most national and state writing tests create these and other artificial conditions for students, Mr. Schuster points out. Can anyone possibly demonstrate writing proficiency under such circumstances?

This article is from Phi Delta Kappan, January 2004. If you subscribe, you can read the other fine articles not available online.


STATE academic standards broadly support the writing process, including the planning (prewriting), drafting, revising, editing, and publishing (sharing) stages. There is also widespread recognition that a valuable part of the process is conferencing, either between teacher and student, student and student (often referred to as peer feedback), or both. But how much do national and state tests support the writing process? In fact, as I shall demonstrate, most national and state tests support only one of the six stages in the writing process: drafting.

In the following discussion of the several stages in the writing process and how tests deal with them, I refer at times to the five occasions when I have taken a simulated writing test. Two of these were administered by someone else; three, by me, while I was teaching workshops. All were timed, one for 20 minutes (at the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey); the others for an hour.

Planning (Prewriting)

On most writing tests, students are commonly urged to prewrite, to generate ideas, or at least to think before they begin their first draft. For example, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) distributes a pretesting brochure that provides suggestions for planning and "reviewing" and also includes a planning page with each sample topic. However, the entire test takes only 25 minutes. How much time, realistically, are students likely to spend planning?

On other national and state tests, how much time are students given to prewrite? And how much time should prewriting take? The answer to the first question varies widely. A few states say that they give students unlimited time, but this claim is often hedged. In an e-mail correspondence, for example, one state department of education official told me that 1) the state's language arts test has no time limit, 2) it must be completed in one day, and 3) "three hours is plenty of time for most students to finish the writing exam." In another state, the students theoretically have "all day" to complete the writing test, but relatively short time limits are "suggested."

According to a 50-state study by Andrea Martine of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, very few states allow more than one session per prompt on their tests. George Hillocks, Jr., author of The Testing Trap (a must-read for those interested in the testing of writing), identified six states that allow more than one session per prompt: Alaska, Kansas, Nevada, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Washington.1 But these things are fluid. Pennsylvania, for example, no longer allows two days for a single prompt, and neither does Alaska. (Pennsylvania is the only state, however, to ask 11th-graders to respond to three different prompts, and these samples may be written on three different days.) New Mexico, not mentioned by Hillocks, currently allows three days for a single prompt.

Oregon, which along with Kentucky is one of the most writing process-friendly states in the nation, has three 50-minute sittings spread over three days for one prompt and gives the students even more time if they need it. However, it recently had to eliminate its writing tests in three of the four grades tested. Kansas, another progressive state, allows four days, one hour per session per day, for a single prompt. These states are unusual. As for national tests, the College Board's achievement test in writing allows 20 minutes to complete the test, five minutes less than the NAEP.

The question of how much time a student should take to complete a writing test cannot be answered in the abstract, for it depends upon too many variables. I once spent 40 minutes prewriting an essay on a test timed for an hour. On another occasion, I plunged right in: my essay itself was essentially a prewrite -- and not a very good one. So much depends upon what students may know about their topic. With some topics and some students, just figuring out what the rubric means may take a considerable amount of time, and a persuasive prompt almost always requires more prewriting than other types.

Consider how much prewriting you might have to do to address the following prompt:

Appreciation of music, paintings, books, and movies doesn't make us into better people. In fact, it may actually worsen us, diminishing our ability to respond to actual situations and making it more difficult to identify with the real world. As one scholar said, "The voice in the poem may come to sound louder, more urgent, more real than the voice in the street outside."

You are to discuss and support your opinion, using examples from literature, the arts, science and technology, current events, or your own experience or observation.

The literary critic Wayne Booth faced this very issue and presumably did a great deal of prewriting. He discovered that it is an extremely complex question, but he worked through the writing process to its end and produced The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction.2 It is over 500 pages long. When we give students topics like this with a limited time to complete the assignment, is it any wonder they can't write proficiently? They are doomed to superficiality.

Yet this was the sample topic for the new SAT essay examination on the College Board's website. No wonder the College Board had difficulty deciding how much time to give students to complete the writing test. (The new optional ACT test will allow 30 minutes.)


This is a stage in the writing process that is ignored by nearly every state and national writing test. But do you know any author who goes directly from his word processor to his publisher? In all transactional writing, it is vital to discover how our words are striking our audience, and only an objective, outside voice can tell us this.

Is it possible to include conferencing in on-demand writing tests? Students taking the state tests in New Mexico, Oregon, or Kansas theoretically could conference between their three or four sessions. Even if they weren't permitted to take their drafts home, they could discuss their ideas with friends and family, or even teachers, if they chose to. However, it seems unlikely that writing tests of the future will allow for any kind of conferencing. The failure to do so is an example of how, when we test them, we do not treat students as if they were real writers in the real world.


For every serious writer, revision, in the global sense -- revision as re-seeing -- is the vital step in the writing process. Indeed, it has often been said that writing is rewriting. Unless we reconsider and redraft, we are not truly writing. Is this belief honored by national and state writing tests?

We certainly do not honor the importance of revising when we give tests with severe time limits. NAEP's brochure offers suggestions for "reviewing," but how much review is possible in 25 minutes? Proofreading, maybe, but not re-seeing. I still vividly remember thinking, while taking a 20-minute test, that I had written nonsense and should start over from scratch, preferably with a new subject. Then I looked at my watch. There wasn't a chance. Instead, I wrote more poppycock and finished with a mediocre paper. But even in cases when I did have time to re-see, where to begin? If you have never subjected yourself to the kind of testing we require of kids, please try it.

There I was -- on three separate occasions -- with page of handwritten, barely legible copy. What could I have done with it? If I did some re-seeing, how would I get it on paper? What would the final paper look like? Should I cross out whole chunks of what I'd already written? Could I write in the margins (they were very narrow)? Might I insert carets and refer the reader to addenda? If you have unlimited time, perhaps you do some of these things and then rewrite the whole paper, but on the tests that I took, revision would have been extremely messy and was not truly an option.

Then there is another matter: Do you care enough to want to revise? As E. B. White wrote, "If you write, you must believe . . . in the truth and worth of the scrawl." On my five writing tests, with only one exception, I did not believe.

Editing and Proofreading

Important as it is (because no one wants to appear illiterate), editing isn't anyone's idea of fun, and it is very easy to forget. When I give in-class writing tests, I always write two things on the board in the largest letters possible: END STRONG. PROOFREAD. ("End strong" because the ending is the last thing a teacher reads before assigning a grade.)

In spite of this, there are always some students who do not proofread; in spite of my strong feelings, I myself have failed to proofread every time I took a simulated test. In two instances I didn't have time, but in the others it was a matter of simply forgetting or of not caring enough about what I had written. Why proofread something that nobody you know or care about is going to read?

Finally, in all the cases of testing that I'm familiar with, students are deprived of dictionaries, handbooks, or other sources they might use in the editing and proofreading phase of the writing process. We used to allow dictionaries in Pennsylvania but took them away because of an 11th-grade "standard" that requires students to "spell all words correctly." One person reasoned, How can we tell whether students have mastered this objective if we give them dictionaries? I should have countered, How can we tell whether they can write if we deny them a resource that every real writer uses routinely?

Publishing (Sharing)

Publishing, or sharing in some form, is the culmination of the writing process, the raison d'?tre of transactional writing. It's also the raison d'?tre of all our teaching of punctuation, capitalization, and spelling. Imagine all the instructional time we could save if people wrote only for themselves. National and state tests often make some effort to concoct an audience for the writing they require -- "Write to a friend," "Write a letter to the school board." But kids know this is a sham.

Do any states publish students' efforts on writing tests? Samples of writing -- including some excellent work -- are published, but only as examples of scored tests, and the names of the authors are not provided. There are obvious reasons for not revealing the names of the students who wrote the worst papers, but what would be wrong with publishing the names of those whose excellent papers were printed? Indeed, we often seek means of motivating students to take these tests more seriously. Perhaps the possibility of publication at the end of the process would help.

The fact that student authors are not published may be one of the reasons why the whole writing test enterprise is essentially what John Mayher calls a "dummy run"3 or what George Hillocks' Scottish grandmother calls "blether."4


What's left? We have effectively eliminated every stage of the writing process but one, drafting. Could it be that that's what most national and state tests really are -- tests of drafting? If so, why not call them that? The NAEP has admitted from the beginning that its tests are drafting tests; the College Board admits the same. But neither agency has had the courage to label them as such.

And here is a final thought. As most of us grow older, especially if we practice and solicit feedback, we become, I think, better writers. Do we also become better drafters? I'm not so sure.

A few years ago, I decided to share with one of my freshman English classes a first draft of the beginning of an article I had published (I had planned on showing them the final draft as well). As I was reading my first draft aloud, I became so infuriated with my own work that I spontaneously crumpled it into a ball and hurled it into a wastepaper basket. I've also saved several of the "writing" tests I've taken, and, frankly, I don't think much of these early drafts either. I might well have been as good at drafting when I was a teenager.

If scores on NAEP writing tests have not improved over the decades, is it possible that it's because the tests are measuring drafting only and not writing? Let's start a truth-in-labeling campaign. If your state's writing tests betray everything you believe about the writing process, lobby to have the department of education change their name to state drafting tests. It would be one step in the direction of getting real about state standards.


1. George Hillocks, Jr., The Testing Trap: How State Writing Assessments Control Learning (New York: Teachers College Press, 2002).

2. Wayne C. Booth, The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

3. John S. Mayher, Uncommon Sense: Theoretical Practice in Language Education (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 1990).

4.Hillocks, op. cit.


EDGAR H. SCHUSTER is a former high school English teacher, college English teacher, K-12 English supervisor, and textbook author. His most recent book is Breaking the Rules: Liberating Writers Through Innovative Grammar Instruction (Portsmouth, N.H.: Heinemann, 2003).

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