July 11, 2002
Vol. 21 No. 18

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    Hillocks finds that standardized writing assessments may be harmful to children’s learning

    By Peter Schuler
    News Office

    George Hillocks Jr., Professor in English Language & Literature and Director of the Master of Arts Program in Teaching, has spent much of the past decade trying to determine what effect standardized writing assessments have on writing ability.

    In his new book, The Testing Trap, which examined K-12 writing tests in five states, Hillocks comes to a gloomy conclusion.

    “Not only do most standardized tests fail to improve writing,” Hillocks said, “they actually have harmful implications.” In all five of the states surveyed, Hillocks found that teachers instruct and prepare students for the test. In Texas, “the test is the teaching,” said Hillocks.

    In two of the states surveyed, Illinois and Texas, the tests guide the curriculum and “encourage the learning of vacuous thinking, thinking without substance,” he said. “Many other states use tests similar to those in Illinois and Texas.”

    As a result of the test conditions, writing teachers usually rely on the formulaic five-paragraph structure. In Illinois, students have 40 minutes to complete the task; in Texas, students have up to a full school day.

    Students then churn out essays with a “first, next, last” structure, but they are not taught how to discern real evidence or support for their points, Hillocks said. Evaluators reward students for following the structure, but not for their choice of evidence. The result, Hillocks said, “kids are passing the tests by writing drivel.”

    Hillocks, who has taught at the University for more than 30 years, first grew interested in state writing assessments in the early 1990s. Many of his students, who were teachers in Illinois, were complaining about problems with the standardized tests, such as the criteria for scoring compositions.

    In 1994, Hillocks began a complete examination of the Illinois test. He found that more than 70 percent of the teachers interviewed were teaching the five-paragraph structure. This has a negative effect, Hillocks said. Composition teachers at Illinois State University, for instance, were finding it was difficult to break students out of the pattern.

    He also found problems with the way the tests were designed. “They pretend that topics are expository when they’re really persuasive,” he said. An Illinois test, for instance, uses for the expository writing section the writing prompt: “explain why this is important.” But this, Hillocks said, is confusing for students. “It suggests, wrongly, that no argument need be made, that all is self-evident, that no persuasion is necessary.”

    Hillocks also researched the process of scoring the Illinois test. A company in North Carolina, which supervised the process, trained its judges to grade each writing test on a 32-point scale within 60 seconds. Under this type of time-pressure, judges simply looked for the formula. “Any teacher who has ever taught writing knows that 60 seconds is not enough time to grade a paper.”

    While testing methods varied, results in three other states surveyed, Oregon, Texas and New York, were similarly dismal, he said. “When you see what very shoddy writing is passing in these states, you can see that they’re making a very big mistake.”

    The bright spot in Hillock’s research was found in Kentucky, which requires students in grades 4, 7 and 12 to submit a portfolio that includes samples of different kinds of writing, none of which are done under time constraints. Students can submit a narrative piece, an imaginative or expressive piece, a piece of literary work or transactive pieces.

    While many teachers in Kentucky complained that the standardization was too time-consuming, Hillocks saw positive results. Kentucky’s test seemed to broaden and improve writing statewide. And Hillocks wrote, “It avoids formulaic writing and treats writing as a meaningful and serious pursuit for students, while providing for the professional development of teachers.”