Currently a department co-chair and co-director with the Pennsylvania Writing & Literature Project, Brian Kelley has taught 6th, 7th, and 8th grade for over twenty years.

A Very Short History Lesson

A Very Short History Lesson

Surprise, Document-Based Questions (DBQs) and Text-Dependent Analysis (TDAs) are not new. The concept and purpose of asking students to use writing to link ideas to facts is very, very old.

Writing has been inextricably tied to testing as far back as 1845 when Reformers Horace Mann (Massachusetts’s first secretary of education) and Samuel Gridley Howe (a member of the state’s School Committee) replaced oral exams with written tests.

Previously, state representatives would visit schools and question students through a rapid-fire system of oral questioning; children would have two or three minutes each to respond. Too often, teachers reminded students of a key word to get them speaking. Perhaps they nudged and encouraged a student with a gentle reminder of something they once practiced. If a student drifted off-topic, the teacher might have redirected the answer.

Evaluators were suspicious. The children's answers already seemed rehearsed and the best sounded somewhat polished. Teachers were too involved in the oral examinations. How could anyone be certain that our children really learned anything?

One record notes that an evaluator asked a student, who could recite from a classical poem when asked, to tell him what the title of the poem Thanatopsis (a meditation on death) meant. Imagine the shuddering outrage of the evaluator when the student peered at his teacher for help.

William Reese, author of Testing Wars in the Public Schools: A Forgotten History  wrote in the New York Times Opinion piece The First Race to the Top, that because of these criticisms and dissatisfaction with the role the teacher played: 

Howe masterminded the use of written tests. His committee arrived at Boston’s grammar schools with preprinted questions, which angered the masters and terrified students. Pupils had one hour to write down their answers on each subject to questions drawn from assigned textbooks. The examiners explained in a lengthy report that they wanted 'positive information, in black and white,' to reveal what students knew."

After scoring the tests all summer, Mann and Howe were horrified to learn that the average score was 30%. The attack on teachers and our outcomes took root. Over 170 years later, outcomes still rule the roost, while incomes are ignored--better training, funding resources, and general equity--across the board, district to district. 

Ignored in Mann and Howe's 19th century firestorm is the fact that students from wealthy, suburban schools did far better on the written examinations than the children from the poverty-riddled, inner-city schools. This incongruous condition has never been resolved. The end result? Teachers taught--and still feel great pressure to teach--to the test, especially in impoverished, inner-city districts. Think of all of the immigrant children, from around the world, flooding inner-city schools in the late nineteen century. Children who had rarely been asked to memorize or analyze (connect facts and ideas) had also never held a pencil or piece of paper. Imagine asking those kids to move knowledge from their brain to paper without the benefit of talking it through--an act that research bears out as a necessary stage of the writing process.

Yet, Mann and Howe are not villains. We might agree with some of their intentions upon closer review. The failure here is that we have changed little in 170 years even after learning so much about how children learn.

In a 1936 report published by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, Examinations and Their Substitutes in the United States, I.L. Kandel identified seven key intentions behind Horace Mann's mission:

  1. standardized questions allows impartial evaluation of students and schools.

  2. with a full hour to write instead of two minutes to recite a practiced response, written tests are fairer to students who can now think and organize their thoughts.

  3. written examinations allows for more responses to a wider range of questions.

  4.  teachers are unable to interrupt or assist students.

  5.  there is no possibility of favoritism.

  6. a student's ability to connect ideas and and facts makes it easier to evaluate teachers.

  7. student scores and schools can be compared to objective standards.

While education reformers still beat the outcomes drum, we know a lot more about what works today than Mann and Howe did in 1845. 

We can see in black and white that writing is too often only used to serve as a vehicle for what students know or to connect ideas and facts--this is transactional writing. We see no room for the promotion of thinking or creative thought. We see written examinations where the outcomes from each student should be identical so that we might weed and sort ineffective teachers from the profession.

This isn't sinister as much as it is short-sighted.

We know now that using writing only as a transaction (to report out information) or only to connect the dots to demonstrate an ability to "connect ideas with facts" (sounds a lot like TDAs and DBQs) does more harm than good when it comes to writing.

Our measurements smother a student's attitude about writing and we have done it so often (seventeen decades worth of damage) that we have generations of adults who have been trained with a very narrow view of what good writing is and what else good writing can be.

The only people in a willing position to reverse this course are teachers. By reading professionally and by reflecting on our practice, we construct specific, concrete evidence to share with parents, administrators, school boards, and local politicians. Do this any way you can--speak it, write it, Tweet it...

Without educating ourselves, we do not stand a chance in educating others.



Flip Your Rubrics Too!

Flip Your Rubrics Too!

Data: the Long & the Short of It

Data: the Long & the Short of It