The Danger of Practicing Writing Tests
Practicing for writing tests is counterproductive. It leads to lower scores.
It’s standardized test time in my great state, and that means a writing prompt. Our state gives fourth graders a writing prompt and then asks them to plan, write, revise, and edit three-and-a-half pages in just fifty-five minutes without any input from other readers or an audience. Now, this type of assessment is, of course, silly and fake, but it’s our reality.
Because this is a strange genre of writing, there is a temptation to make students do sample writing prompts as practice. Teachers with the best of intentions set up the timer and have students do exactly what they will be required to do on the standardized test. The thinking is that if they do this enough times, they’ll be used to it, and then the writing test will be no big deal.
However, we want students to think this one test is a big deal. We want them to think it’s a huge deal. We want them to know that this is the one time this year where they are going to try to cram every piece of writing knowledge — all the word choices, all the similes, all the varied sentence structures — into one fifty-five minute test. If we make students do these types of writings all the time, they will become commonplace. If students do these tests all the time, they see the real deal and think, “Well…here’s another one…” Their interest in the task vanishes, their effort declines, and their scores suffer.
This problem is compounded by the opportunity cost of making students practice for standardized tests. If a school has students practice extended prompts once a month, by March the students will have missed eight chances at having a writing lesson that would have improved their writing skills. Maybe they missed two lessons on writing interesting beginning sentences, three about strong verbs, and two about using complex sentences to vary sentence lengths. The students who learns these lessons will be a stronger writer than the student that did eight sample prompts.
Now, there are some facets of test takings to which students must be exposed. They must know how to read and decode a prompt, identifying the format and audience of the writing. They must know how to plan using the space provided to gather ideas for writing. The must know simple things they can do to make their writing stand out among the crowd. However, none of these require students to push out three full pages of writing.
In my classroom, there is only one time where I expect students to take a prompt from start to a three-and-a-half page finish: test day. They know this is the only time they will be asked to do this, and they have to nail it. The effort I get every year is outstanding. They blow me away with what they write.
And, they are better writers, which is what really matters.