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.
This 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.)