State writing tests and the jet-setter’s edge

Steven Weinberg, a retired Oakland public schoolteacher, says California’s writing tests — which are likely being taken right this moment — do a poor job of measuring the abilities of disadvantaged students.

Steven WeinbergThis week, fourth and seventh grade students throughout California will be taking the state writing examinations. We can hope that the writing assignments the students are given will allow each student a fair opportunity to show his or her writing skills, but past assignments show that this has not always been the case. Some writing tasks have given large advantages to students from prosperous backgrounds and have made it very difficult for students from disadvantaged families to earn good scores.

The clearest example is the 2007 assignment. The prompt, which has been released by the state department of education, along with examples of student answers, read: “If you were given the opportunity to travel anywhere in the world for one week, where would you go? Think about a place you would love to visit and write a narrative describing the events that happen on your trip.”

This topic obviously favored students who had traveled somewhere exciting, and the examples the state released of high scoring papers confirms that. The papers earning 4s (the highest score) were written by students who were familiar with the details of airline travel and who could describe European sights with confidence. Papers earning 2s and 1s had no specific details. You can see for yourself by looking at the State Department of Education’s Writing Guide for 2007.

Sometimes the writing task requires reading a literary selection first and then writing about it. When the state selects literary selections that are too difficult for some students to read, those students have a great deal of difficulty writing about them. Since this test is supposed to measure writing skills, and not reading skills (which are measured elsewhere on the state tests), you would think that the selections would be simple enough that most students would be able to read them with no difficulty.

This has not been the case. The seventh grade May 2003 test was based on a selection from Mama’s Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes (1943), a book that has a reading level of eighth grade and an interest level of ninth grade according to an educational publisher. Since this was a seventh grade test, one could predict that more than half the students had some difficulty reading the selection they were to write about and did not have a fair chance to show their writing skills.

It is unfortunate that the state does not insist that the tests they use to measure writing skills don’t unfairly discriminate against students who do not come from wealthy backgrounds or who do not read at grade level. Please join me in emailing the State Department of Education, here, and urging them to make sure all students have a fair chance to demonstrate their writing skills.

(IMPORTANT NOTE: Teachers and students, please make sure in responding to this posting or writing the state that you do not give details of any writing assignment unless it has been released on the state Web site. The California State Department of Education considers any discussion of test items not released as a violation of test security, even if the test has already been given.)

Katy Murphy

Education reporter for the Oakland Tribune. Contact me at kmurphy@bayareanewsgroup.com.

  • Charles Wilson

    Hi Steve:

    One wishes the State had you to advise them! These kinds of inept decisions made in testing perpetuate society’s (intentional?) pattern of allowing access through these kinds of academic gates for only some of our children.

    Charles Wilson, Principal: Korematsu Discovery Academy

    An interesting note: The 4th Grade Writing Exam has been cancelled this year, presumably due to funding issues. See:


    “Elimination of Grade Four Writing Assessment
    The CST for Writing (the writing component of the CST for English–Language Arts [ELA]), and the CMA for Writing (the writing component of the CMA for ELA) will not be administered to students in grade four in the 2009-10 school year. The elimination of the writing task will have no effect on students’ achievement of proficiency because the CST for ELA in grade four and the CMA for ELA in grade four will be scaled and equated on the basis of the multiple-choice questions only.”

  • Caroline

    Here in San Francisco, deep, heart-tugging poignancy is favored! The schools handed out an example (actually written by someone I know). The prompt is to describe a challenge that you’ve overcome, and the exemplary essayist wrote about helping her mother cope with the death of HER parent.

    With my oldest child, I was really focused on how he would do on this test, being the son of two writers. Well, even as a 4th-grader, my son viewed being deliberately poignant just to score points on a test as cheap pandering. So there are no 6’s in his record. (After that I recognized that this test was BS and ignored his 7th-grade score, and both of my younger child’s.)

    So in this case, cynicism is punished and deep sincerity (or the ability to feign it) wins points. Obviously, neither has anything to do with writing ability.

  • Gordon Danning


    I understand your frustration with the prompt, but writing prompts for district-wide writing tests is very difficult, and full of pitfalls. One key issue lies with the rubric used to assess the writing, and the training of the graders: If “includes cheap sentimentality” is on the rubric, there is a problem. If it is not on the rubric, but the graders are swayed by its inclusion, there is a problem. But if neither of those is the case, then there is less of a problem. (Don’t get me started, though, on the use of “holistic” grading of essays, which seems to me to be an exemplar of the “emperor’s clothes.”)

  • Caroline

    Yes, I know it’s difficult. But that doesn’t mean it’s not BS. (Of course the scores don’t actually impact the student. My son did fine — 2300 SAT and he’s at Oberlin. I’ve lost touch and will have to check into where Little Miss Cheap Sentimentality, a grade ahead of him, went to college.)

  • Nextset

    This reminds me of the controversy about the test question (PSAT, SAT?) where the correct word was “regatta”. The detractors complained that a lower class black student would have not reference to that word so the test was unfair.

    Well, these selection processes are not looking for lower class black children. At least the ones who don’t read books.

    Or any other ethnic non book reading candidates.

    A child with the expected and required level of reading would have known that word. We all know that does not include lower class children of any ethnic.

    That’s the point of the test (PSAT etc anyway).


    The question here is what are we testing for in 4th & 7th grade, anyway? The other tests I’ve mentioned are screening tests to eliminate wanna be college students who have no aptitude and would not be expected to be able to manage a real college.

    It is possible this 4th and 7th grade test is intended to give people a heads up that their students is not keeping up with Ken and Barbie. Because Ken and Barbie are headed for Stanford, or at least UOP. The Piedmont families do need to have this info at 4th and 7th grade to see how Hyman and Lee are doing.

    Is this a case of clashing perspectives – exactly who is being tested for what end? Is this a case of some people thinking they can raise their kid (not to read?) as a lower class child and shield that student from failing scores as they are tested against a college-bound norm? Are the complaining parties in this debate complaining because they only want lower class children to be given tests the can pass? Tests that “reflect” their low culture? If so they need their own educational system that prepares them to only be lower class.

    Brave New World.

  • Steven Weinberg

    Mr. Wilson, thank you for your comment and the information about the 4th grade test not being given this year. It is interesting that the state canceled the test for one grade, but went ahead with the other.
    Nextset, Students who read a great deal and who have strong vocabularies will always do better on writing tests than those who don’t. They don’t need the added advantage of having prompts that make it impossible for other students to show the skills they do have.

  • Hills Mama

    Interesting…my fourth grader reports she took a writing test two days ago. Moreover, her class actively prepared for it. If the state test was canceled then what test was this?

  • Oakland Teacher

    This was a district writing test that students take over the course of a week. It is an alternative to the CST writing or the CAT 6, that was also discontinued last year.

  • Nextset

    Steven Weinberg: Re Post #6 above: I restate my point. The tests are designed to deselect certain people. ANY question that reliably flunks those who are not the target people for passage is fair game. We’d use inkblots if we could figure out how to machine score them.

    It is up to the candidates to learn how to mimic the model candidate, “regattas” and travel histories included. You will probably find that the immigrant students waste no time in doing so. That’s called “studying” and the immigrants are good at it.

    If all of this sounds a little brutal, it’s supposed to be. It’s life in the Brave New World.

    In Los Angeles they are competing to get into the correct pre-school. And so it goes.

    I didn’t create this mess, I’m only commenting on it. You appear to be surprised at the commentary – have you not heard this kind of assessment of standardised testing before?

    An example of the National Bar Exam multiple choice test – the “multistate”. We were taught at Bar review that the administrators of the Multistate embed experimental test questions each year. One of the things they look for is whether a particular test/experimental question is answered a certain way by the otherwise high scoring candidates, and is reliably answered differently by the known losers. A question that too many losers get right, or too many champions don’t – was discarded and not retained in the future. When the tests are designed, the whole point behind their construction is to find questions that actually sort winners from losers.

    Nobody wants test questions that everyone gets correct. That is why relatively obscure words & phrases are used. Candidates who actually read will know them or will have enough reference experience to make an educated guess. That is why it’s “fair” to have vocabulary words such as “regatta” in a test for urban youth. As for your travel questions (I remember one rant because their lower class child was given a test wherin there was an answer involving using a taxicab) – yes, Ken and Barbie are at an advantage with these things. That’s the point. It’s Ken and Barbie that are the model for a successful college student and the closer you are to them the higher you score in such aptitude tests.

    It’s all about sorting. Remember, the government doesn’t want the public schools to ever use IQ testing which might eliminate the need to play these games with proxy scoring.

    This is also why the failure of the public schools to teach middle/upperclass values and norms renders the students unable to compete in the adult world.

    Brave New World.