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Keeping it real: Creative Writing under the shadow of standardized Testing


– From Creative Writing in the Community: a Guide, by Terry Ann Thaxton, Bloomsbury, 2014.


The Dog That Wants To Get Over the Wall

Hello, I am a dog. Will you help me get over this wall? So the dog went to the wall and then he got a stick and jumped up but that wall was so big that the dog crashed into the wall and fell. So the dog got a ladder but it did not work. The ladder was too little and the wall was too big. So the dog was thinking and then he got 4 plungers and he got on the wall with the 4 plungers. The plungers stuck to the wall and he got on top, but when he got up the wall he saw a bigger wall and the dog cried. So the dog said how will I get to my house on time said the dog. So the dog got the 4 plungers and he got on the wall. So he climbed and climbed and then it was night. The dog screamed what will I do said the dog! Then his owner called him and then when he heard his voice the dog jumped up and up so that the dog landed on top of the wall. The dog said hooray but when he opens his eyes he sees a bigger wall. When he saw the wall the dog said no!, no!, no!, and no!

It’s tempting to interpret this existential parable (complete with suction cups) in light of the author’s background; her parents emigrated from the repressive theocracy of Iran. But Kylie Baher was born in the U.S. and composed this story in second grade. She laughed while writing it; she thought it was funny. Part of what we cherish about creative writing is its defiance of formulaic analysis. It is too much like life, with its infinite complexities, contradictions, and unfathomable scenarios.

In contrast, a standardized writing rubric, e.g. the Six Traits, which until recently formed the basis of most state assessments, including the Arizona’s Instrument to Measure Standards (AIMS) in my home state, Arizona, depends exactly on such a formula. The Six Traits—ideas and content, organization, voice, sentence fluency, word choice, and conventions—have been helpless to convey the mythic dimension that Kylie unknowingly opens with her tale. They could commend her for “a thorough, balanced explanation/exploration of the topic” or rue the inconsistency of verb tenses that “do distract the reader” but perhaps “do not block meaning.”

Capturing creative writing in a rubric is like trapping a dream with a waffle iron. Which is why AIMS, and most state standardized testing systems, haven’t even tried doing it. This is why, along with testing culture’s climate of fear, in states like Arizona, creative writing has been marginalized in public schools to the point of vanishing. Arizona’s story is that of much of the nation as a whole.

A high school student who must pass AIMS to graduate, and whose failure could contribute to the firing of administration and faculty, and even the takeover of her school by the state, is not invited to write like this:

Is It “I Am” Or “My Name”

My name belongs to a dead white woman. How it got down to me?

I don’t know. Josephine. Does not suit me. It has no meaning

But I am a meaning, a meaning for laughter

Like a feather of the eagle being patted over a child’s body for blessing

The child laughs.

I am a meaning, a meaning for strength

Like a feather of the eagle being patted over my grandfather’s body

for blessing. My grandfather who is a warrior.

I am a meaning, a meaning of gentleness

Like a feather of the eagle being patted over my mother’s body

for blessing. My mother a heroine.

I am a meaning, a meaning of a birthmark.

Like a feather of the eagle being patted over my body for

blessing. My name Spotted Feather.

Not just my name it’s who I am.

(Josie Frye, 11th grade, 1996)

From the time my wife and I, and a poet friend, founded the non-profit ArtsReach in 1986, through the first years of the current millennium, we encouraged Native American students in southern Arizona to find their voices, to uplift their communities, and to stir outsiders with their gifts of expressive writing. The Arizona Commission on the Arts granted me that same freedom, from 1979 to 1987. So did the Tucson Unified School District (TUSD) in the early years of my author-in-residence program.

This past year I taught persuasive writing to high school students in Josie Frye’s old district, and to middle school students in Josie’s old district, and to fifth graders in Josie’s old district. And to second, third, and fourth graders in TUSD.

Many of those teachers, and their administrators, are brave enough to let me sneak in the occasional story or poem, too. But in doing so—in not using every classroom moment to teach to the test—they put their own careers at risk. After all, Josie’s poem runs afoul of the Six Traits stricture against “repeated patterns of sentence structure” although the allowance that “figurative language may be used” could award her points for Word Choice.

The severest fault of Josie’s poem, though, is that it is not a persuasion. In 2010–11, the last year of record available for this essay, persuasion accounted for over 70 percent of the AIMS writing prompts, grades 5–12. While responsible persuasion hones critical thinking, its dominance of the testing field probably owes more to its relative predictability as a form. The vagaries of assessing writing have bedeviled AIMS since its inception. In 2008, AIMS writing scores overall inexplicably dropped nine percentage points from the previous year, falling at every grade level except eighth. In 2006, while writing scores generally held steady across grade levels, they plunged some 20 percent among third graders. As Arizona’s then-Superintendent of Public Instruction admitted, “We’re doing everything we can to take something inherently subjective and make it as objective as possible.”

Given the pervasiveness of persuasion, particularly among the upper grades, no wonder that students relegate creative writing to the days of fuzzy slippers and recess. Put away childish things. When I was permitted to teach fiction to Baboquivari High School students in 2008, most began with an expository introduction. They had forgotten how to write a story.

Little is more capricious than educational theory. During the late eighties and well into the nineties, Whole Language, which gloried in unbound written expression and exploration—damn the spelling! full speed ahead!— held sway over much classroom pedagogy. Arizona even incorporated poetry into state language arts standards.

But as measured performance continued to decline nationwide, institutional education clamped down on writing, along with reading and math. Arizona’s AIMS was implemented in 1999 as a requirement to graduate high school, though that ultimate penalty—denial of a diploma for failure to pass—was postponed for several years, since modified and mitigated. In 2000, AIMS was expanded to include third, fifth, and eighth grades. In 2009 all grades 3–12 were required to take AIMS, except ninth, which administered the national-brand TerraNova. With the economic crash, the extended writing portion of AIMS has been cut back, the grading deemed too expensive. It now (2012) begins in fifth grade.

Despite the inability of standardized tests to reliably assess writing, the hierarchy—No Child Left Behind at the federal level, AIMS at the state— absolutely commandeered the teaching of writing in local venues. School districts structured writing curriculum to reflect institutional pressures.

While I would have assumed that top-down regimentation would at least have produced a higher baseline of competence in expository writing, even if at the expense of expressive forms, my inquiries suggested murkier outcomes.

“Honestly, I cannot say students overall write worse or better than a decade ago,” responded Dr. Anne-Marie Hall (2009), who oversees freshman composition at the University of Arizona. She condemns No Child Left Behind as “horrible. The fear of not making AYP [Adequate Yearly Progress] for any school is enough to make some administrators take draconian steps with teachers. If it is the second week of February in sophomore year, you must be teaching ‘x.’”

Dr. Donna Rabuck, assistant director of a University of Arizona tutoring program for 30 years, agreed (2009). “I’m sorry to say I don’t see a difference. You would think that after all they do, it would show up. Maybe they learn those skills and they don’t know how to transfer them to a deeper level, when they’ve come to college? They don’t know how to do critical thinking or analysis? What they’ve learned is a kind of rote way of attacking?”

Climate of fear. Teaching to the test. These casual phrases have come to govern the practice of writing in so many of our schools.

Power shifts in Washington, DC, may nudge the standardized testing foundation but don’t promise to shake it. While the Obama administration has sought to relax the rigidness of NCLB requirements, it shows no signs of questioning testing culture itself; indeed its proposed reforms and incentives pledge allegiance to the authority of test results.

Enter the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). In a push to entrench norms more uniformly across the nation, nearly all states have adopted CCSS for language arts and math. (States may add an additional 15 percent of their own content to the CCSS.) Assessment is following suit. By 2014–15, Arizona will join approximately half the CCSS states in using the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) as its standardized test. Other states have opted for the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC).

I can’t divine, and probably only time will tell, what this bodes for creative writing. CCSS relies consistently on three strands of writing throughout K–12: persuasion/argument, expository, and narrative. As a third of this triumvirate, stories, after a long retreat, could be poised to storm back into the classroom. (Typical of standardized criteria, CCSS averts its gaze from student-composed poetry entirely. Kindergartners, however, will be required to “compose opinion pieces,” that is, persuasions.)

Caution: under CCSS, the fuzzy slipper rule still holds. Fiction, by and large, is for kids. For grades 6–12, the CCSS Introduction states, “Fulfilling the Standards for 6–12 ELA [English Language Arts] requires much greater attention to a specific category of informational text—literary nonfiction— than has been traditional.” This to balance that goshdarned fondness of ELA classrooms for literature—“stories, drama, and poetry”—with the “growing emphasis on informational texts in the higher grades … the overwhelming focus of writing throughout high school should be on arguments and informative/explanatory texts.”

Even when officially sanctioned, stories still will be circumscribed by a generic rubric. While well-intentioned and carefully thought, the CCSS will not catch much lightning in this bottle:

Write narratives in which they recount a well-elaborated event or short sequence of events, include details to describe actions, thoughts, and feelings, use temporal words to signal event order, and provide a sense of closure. (second grade)

Use dialogue and description to develop experiences and events or show the responses of characters to situations. (fourth grade)

Orient the reader by establishing a situation and introducing a narrator and/ or characters; organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally. (fifth grade) Provide a conclusion that follows from and reflects on the narrated experiences or events. (seventh grade)

Organize an event sequence that unfolds naturally and logically. (eighth grade)

Not all stories require dialogue. Many lack a formal conclusion; inconclusiveness itself can be a virtue in fiction. Logic is anathema to some greatfiction. By definition, “creative” writing evades a “rubric.” Ultimately, the fate of creative writing under CCSS will depend on assessment. If narrative takes its turn in a testing rotation, students will write stories, at least. If it ain’t tested, it won’t happen. What am I asking for? More warping of storytelling via the procrustean bed of standardized testing? Is that better than no storytelling? Students need creative writing. Most are unaware of this need because they never have the chance to engage with or even conceive of it. But given the opportunity, that need bursts forth.

The Boy and the Eagle

There was a boy about eighteen years old. He got really mad at his parents because they were going to let him do the plans to a new house, but they went ahead and did their own plans.

Then he ran real fast toward a place he had never been. It was very quiet and had plants of yellow and red, and tall strong trees. When he had found a place to sleep, he slept. The place he slept had a lot of leaves on the ground which had fallen from the tree above.

Overnight he changed into an eagle. When he woke up the next morning, he tried to talk, but his voice was just a loud squawk. Then he looked at himself, and he had feathers on his arms and all over his body. He could see his beak by just looking down. He looked at his feet and could see that his nails were as sharp as a knife.

He went in a little cave that was dark, but not so dark after he built a fire. And after a while he came out and started to fly, but he saw he wasn’t very good at it. On his first try he couldn’t get off the ground. On his second try he ran off a cliff. He fell to the ground but wasn’t hurt. That’s when he learned to fly better by flapping his wings a little slower. It took him a while before he started flying so swiftly. The next step he learned was to catch his prey and be cautious in case there was danger. While he was hunting, he heard a rabbit in the bushes, and after a while he could spot it from far away.

Then, about a year later, he saw his family was searching for him, and he also missed them. Then the next day his family went over to a ditch where inside was a small river, and they went in the ditch. They saw a person who was far away, and there, sitting on the river bank, was an eagle which was their son.

As they got closer, he changed, and when he turned around he brushed off his arms. Four feathers fell off his arms, and on his head was a feather. And his hair was very straight as if the wind had been blowing against it.

When they took him home, he found out they had a new addition to their family. It was his brother, a nice little baby who soon will be told of the place his brother will never forget.

And when the boy thought about things, he thought about how fun it was to be an eagle, and how good his vision was, and hearing. But he still had it in his heart, and it was almost like he had two hearts. He goes to visit where he stayed and sometimes turns into an eagle.

(Patrick Lewis-Jose, 4th grade)

This story written in 1990 could serve as a blueprint for Patrick’s life, in which he has overcome the social ills of his rural Native community and a rag-tag school system to earn degrees at Stanford, help form a tight, dynamic family, and teach against the current, successfully resisting a canned curriculum during his first year in the field. Patrick certainly has learned to fly, and I’d credit him with at least two hearts, minimum.

Looking back, Patrick articulates the importance of that first creative writing experience, in which he was asked to “try to express whatever we were feeling or seeing or wanting. No one had ever asked me that before. It changed my life.”

Every student deserves that chance. In the interests of a competitive workforce, let us inundate our schools with “informational texts.” But don’t exclude creative writing. Don’t ignore the whole person. Creative writing is a means for young people to grapple with the challenges of meaning and existence at a crucial time of their lives.

But it also can score well. It can feed the beast.

Forgiving the absence of dialogue in Patrick’s story—after all, there was no one for his character to talk to—the CCSS evaluator could be gratified by “concrete words and phrases and sensory details” that “convey experiences and events precisely.” The story does “orient the reader by establishing a situation.” A Six Traits grader could reward its “balanced and thorough exploration of the topic using relevant details.”

Or take student poetry, which officially doesn’t exist on the CCSS screen.

Sad as a Bum in Jail

I am sad like a bum in jail in a cold cell with murderers thieves and killers mean cops

picking on you they give you nasty food you work in a blazing hot sun smashing rock and making license plates working in a cafeteria mopping throwup I want to puke I am going to hate tomorrow lifting weights and playing basketball that is orange like our suit in handcuffs and rattling chains.

(Luis Arvizu, 3rd grade)

CCSS doesn’t ask for “figurative language” in third grade, but it does in fourth. Luis could be rehearsing, couldn’t he? The entire poem technically is an extended simile which unmoors itself from its origin, “I am sad like a bum in jail,” to make its extraordinary journey into a palpable fear in Luis’s life. At the same time, his poem certainly proves he can “choose words and phrases for effect,” if that is what CCSS is looking for. Configuring Luis’s poem into prose, however, adding the appropriate punctuation, reveals another strong selling point for poetry, if selling what we must do to ensure its place in students’ maturing.

I am sad like a bum in jail, in a cold cell with murderers, thieves, and killers, mean cops picking on you. They give you nasty food. You work in a blazing hot sun, smashing rock and making license plates, working in a cafeteria, mopping throwup. I want to puke. I am going to hate tomorrow, lifting weights and playing basketball—that is orange like our suit—in handcuffs and rattling chains.

The sentences snake and pop together, the long, cumulative phrasing alternating with the blunt statements, “They give you nasty food” and “I want to puke.” In no prose of Luis’ that I saw did he remotely approach that level of artistry. It was poetry that informed his ear, lifted his cadences. Thanks to poetry, Luis achieved sentence fluency.

Beyond standardized scoring, creative writing can serve other academic goals. Classroom Instruction That Works, a meta-analysis published by Robert Marzano, Debra Pickering, and Jane Pollock in 2001, culled a host of studies for nine strategies that contributed most to student achievement. Among such broad practices as graphic organizers and cooperative learning, Number One on the list was “identifying similarities and differences,” which encompasses both comparison-contrast and metaphorical thinking.

The O’odham War

I was in my room. As I was spacing out on the mirror, thinking of old Indian legends and fights, I fell and suddenly I was sitting on a little hill spaced out on a rock.

I realized I was 100 years back in time, in the middle of a war between the Apaches and the O’odham. I got hit in the head by a rock and passed out.

When I came to, I was lying down in a little adobe. Boy, did my head hurt, like a spear going into a heart of an evil person and all their powers releasing. I opened my eyes. I saw an old woman. It was one of my ancestors. I could tell by the way she was dressed, with her long hair, long dress, and no shoes. I said, “Where am I?”

She looked startled. She got a rock and threw it at me. That’s when I knew she didn’t know I was an O’odham, ’cause of my jeans, black T-shirt, and Vision shoes. The rock felt weird. It got my arm numb. I said, “Lady, what’s up with you?” But then I came to realize that she didn’t know English. Once again she threw a rock, and continued to.

After the tenth rock I was in my room looking in the mirror. I guess I’m just thinking too hard. (Wenona Ortegas, 6th grade)

Through examples such as this, students understand that comparison-contrast need not be an academic exercise. While Wenona and her ancestor both are members of the Tohono O’odham tribe, the differences in dress and language dramatize the gulf between them. Not only does the warrior woman fail to recognize Wenona as one of her own but stones her for her strangeness, more, the estrangement from traditional ways that Wenona’s story painfully acknowledges. And that simile—“Boy, did my head hurt, like a spear going into the heart of an evil person and all their powers releasing.” Figurative language, indeed.

Obviously, students drafting and revising their stories and poems are honing their testable skills, too, should we choose to view it that way. Emotionally compelled by their own material, they write better, setting new expectations for themselves, and are more willing to revise, for content as well as stylistic and grammatical considerations. It’s through revision that the most dramatic learning takes place.

At its fringes, the standardization of writing can verge on the ridiculous. Five-year-olds do not need to “compose opinion pieces.” Their job is to explore senses and imagination like this:

I am at the bottom of the ocean! It is as dark as a black hole. Little bubbles rise from me. The bubbles look like little jellyfish as I talk. I see jellyfish and seaweed and coral reef. I see shells rocks and sand. The shells look like clams. Some are open. Some are closed. (Leksi Grodzki, kindergarten)

More gravely, though, in its panic to achieve basic competence, testing culture threatens all classroom writing with sterility and inconsequence. Real writing is not a testable commodity. It is a purpose. It explains, informs, persuades, speculates, reflects, discovers—or catches the heart and spirit—because people need it to do so. We must connect students with those authentic drives, not squeeze them into a rubric grid. They will write better, score better, and we’ll all be happy.

Perhaps, someday, the pendulum of the educational industry will make one of its wild periodic swings, back to the intrinsic value of writing as a fundamental human act.

Without intending to—that’s the beauty of it—Finland’s educational philosophy has thrown down a challenge to the entire standardized testing hegemony. Unlike the annual exercises of AIMS or CCSS, Finland imposes no standardized test “until the end of high school.” Teachers are not “judged by their students’ test scores” (Ravitch, 2012). Yet over the past decade Finnish students have scored among the highest in the world—often the highest—in the Program for International Assessment, a measure of proficiency in reading, math, and science. Finnish educator Pasi Sahlberg, one of Ravitch’s sources, credits a range of factors, including the selectivity and rigor of Finland’s training of teachers and an emphasis on “learning, rather than on preparing students for tests” (Sahlberg, 2007 p.156).

Perhaps, someday, the assessment ideology will be forced to reassess itself—and find itself wanting.

Perhaps the dog will make it over the wall.

In the meantime, though, we lovers and teachers of writing are not as alone as it may seem. Classroom teachers and even administrators sympathize, not even secretly. “I wish I had more time for creative writing” is a common refrain from the classrooms I visit. Not long after Arizona imposed AIMS, a primary school principal requested a “Six Traits poetry workshop” for his second graders. I don’t blame the principal for that mutant monster. He was just trying to jimmy poetry into the system.

We must keep helping him.

Note:Since the publication of this essay, Keli Baher’s father has corrected my misunderstanding: their family left Iran before the 1976 revolution, that is, during the repressive monarchy that preceded the repressive theocracy.