So, How DO You Measure Writing?

We’ve all sorts of standardized writing tests and all sorts of grading rubrics.  Also, classroom teachers grade their assignments in myriad ways, further complicating any survey of what it means to grade a piece of writing.  Test administrators put that aside: they know that there is little consistency of “standards” in the classroom (in the college classroom, at least), little assurance that the grades one teacher gives will be replicated anywhere else (too many teachers, not willing to get with the program, still read and respond instead of evaluating by rubric).  Test administrators, after all, want every grader to come to the same evaluation result of any one particular essay.

Unfortunately, the only way they’ve managed to do this is to “kill” the essay the student has to write for the test, to leave it “formulated, sprawling on a pin,” to steal a phrase from “Prufrock.”  They make it into a static “thing” open for analysis and judgment.  They then take out their measuring tools and see if it meets predetermined “standards.”  They can trumpet their results: “We know what good writing is!”

But do they?  Of course not.

At its heart, good writing is effective communication.  It is based on an understanding of the point one desires to get across and of the audience one is addressing.  The text itself is merely a vehicle, not the end in itself.

We’ve made “text” into writing’s god, yes, but it needn’t be so, and the rules we’ve made for defining this god are capricious and, in many cases, inconsistent.  They have less to do with the effectiveness of what is written and more to do with cultural norms.

Of course, there have always been voices crying for us to allow our writing to “speak” (George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” comes to mind), but the impact of these has been negligible.  We end up, in our schools, falling back again and again on the five-paragraph theme (or some version thereof) as the base for our evaluation of writing: “Write what you’re going to write; write it; write what you’ve written.”  “Thesis statements” and “topic sentences” hover around almost every discussion of student papers.  Word counts, sentence structure, convention….

Communication is almost forgotten.  Teachers don’t expect to learn from student papers, anyhow, and prefer to evaluate papers based on presentation of information gleaned from elsewhere–on “research.”  Thought, struggle with ideas and their presentation (their communication) has little to do with writing in most school environments–even in those writing classrooms where “opinion” is used as a base.

To measure writing effectively, we need to step back from writing-as-text, an attitude towards written communication that is nothing more than one of the bi-products of what Walter Only calls the “literacy” culture.  We need to see writing within the context of communications acts, something B.F. Skinner was struggling to convey in his unjustly derided Verbal Behavior.  When we can do that, we can start to evaluate writing in fashions useful to students, to education, and to the culture as a whole–if we are willing to return to one factor that we’ve been erasing, and that is the teacher-as-audience.

The problem with relying on teachers and looking for effective communication is that evaluation in such a manner cannot be standardized.  Effective communication leaves no residue of the communication, only of the act (the text, the recording, whatever). 

The only way for us to really measure writing is to return faith to the audience of writing.  In our educational system, that’s the teacher.  As we continue on our quest of make everything measurable, we leave out teachers as audience, for they are individual, not standardized.

The best way to measure writing is to train our teachers to be effective listeners and readers, training them through extensive reading and discussion–not of rules, but of what people have written and whether or not the work engages each (or any) individual reader.

The best way to measure writing is to trust teachers to read fully and respond appropriately to what students are writing.  The best way to measure writing is individually, not against some rubric of another.

This goes against the grain of our current mania for the lock-step, the assembly line of education.  But it is, in fact, what has made American education the powerhouse it was for well over a century.

Once, we trusted our teachers, and they did a good job for us.  Today, we don’t, and they are unable to do a good job for us (one cannot measure writing simply by examining text for formal features).

Until we once again trust our teachers, we will be unable to effectively evaluation student writing.

We best measure writing by listening to audiences.  In schools, teachers are the audience.

It’s as simple as that.

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