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October 1, 2004
Vol. 62
No. 2

Perspectives / Dream Come True?

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      Which is the English teacher's worst nightmare: (A) Writing becomes a lost art. (B) Writing takes its rightful place in the curriculum—front and center—but to be considered “good,” writing must rigidly follow a formula.
      How close are we to either of these nightmares coming true? The National Assessment of Educational Progress weighs in on the status of writing skills with these statistics: Four of five U.S. students in grades 4, 8, and 12 score at or above the basic level of writing. Only 22 percent of 12th graders achieve at or above the proficient level. And only one in 100 is rated as advanced. Thus, as the National Commission on Writing concludes,Students can “write.” The difficulty is that they cannot systematically produce writing at the high levels of skill, maturity, and sophistication required in a complex, modern economy. (p. 16)
      To look at other measures of writing—after all, tests are not the only reliable proof—one need go no further than the computer. Log into a blog or two or sneak a peek at students' instant messaging and you will find that the art of writing is alive and well. The voice, the substance, the interest, and the humor are there, even if the grammar, the spelling, and the topic sentences are often not. One has to ask whether the true test of writing is a test, or just writing?
      Enter the writing assessment. This spring, high school students who take the SAT will spend 25 minutes responding to a quotation or an aphorism with a handwritten writing sample. Assessors—human beings, not computers as of yet—will take three minutes to judge each sample on the basis of organization, vocabulary, sentence structure, and length (development). This new emphasis on writing should help to put writing back into the curriculum, advocates of the test say, and make students, teachers, and the general public see writing as the essential skill that it is.
      Already the coaching by the test prep business has begun. “Don't repeat the question in your first sentence,” it says. “Use transition words like therefore, in contrast, and in conclusion. Don't start every sentence the same way. Conclude your essay with three sentences.” Other advice to students: Find out which colleges don't require writing test scores. (For fall 2006 college entrants, 17 percent of colleges will require the writing test, 20 percent will recommend it, and 63 percent will not require it [ACT Media Relations, 2004].)
      The English teachers whose nightmare used to be correcting a mountainous pile of term papers written in passive voice on the subject of the rain forest might despair about all this if they did not already know some things about writing. First, they know that writing well will always be one of the toughest and one of the most rewarding endeavors a human being can undertake. Spending more time on writing across the curriculum has to be a good use of time. And if “the rules” become the vogue, let us not forget that those who master one set of rules can also learn another. Even if computers do eventually assess the mechanical elements of writing, a good writer will need to outsmart a computer—especially in the real world, where “assessment” involves communication with other people. Good writing involves clear thinking, originality, cogent arguments, and compelling examples—by anyone's rules.
      This issue of Educational Leadership offers advice to educators who want to teach students to write well—a challenging task, indeed. As one of the great rule makers for writing, E. B. White, writes,Who can confidently say what ignites a certain combination of words, causing them to explode in the mind? . . . . These are high mysteries . . . . There is no satisfactory explanation of style, no infallible guide to good writing, no assurance that a person who thinks clearly will be able to write clearly, no key that unlocks the door, no inflexible rule by which the young writer may shape his course. He will often find himself steering by stars that are disturbingly in motion. (p. 52)
      Turn our pages for some direction from those who practice the art of steering by stars.

      ACT Media Relations. (2004, Sept. 7). Most colleges will not require writing test scores. [Press release] Iowa City, IA: Author.

      National Commission on Writing in America's Schools and Colleges. (2003). The neglected “R”: The need for a writing revolution. New York: College Board. Available: www.writingcommission.org

      Strunk, W., Jr., & White, E. B. (1959). The elements of style. New York: The MacMillan Company.

      Marge Scherer has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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