The FCAT Writing Exam

Veritas Libertas by Edward Wimberley

I have yet to speak to any of my academic colleagues who have not lamented the deplorable state of our students’ writing skills – regardless of whether they are freshmen or sophomores, juniors or seniors.

The sad truth is our students can’t write, which is in great part attributable to the fact that they are unable to critically read, comprehend what they have read, compare differing ideas and concepts and reflect this cognitive effort in writing.

By comparison to my classmates from Stetson University in 1971 these students are frankly illiterate.

When I claim they are illiterate what I specifically mean is that by and large they cannot spell, don’t understand syntax, can’t cite and reference the sources of information they use for their written work, exhibit great difficulty thinking critically and comparing diverse ideas in their writing and they plagiarize prolifically – typically out of ignorance regarding citing and referencing their sources.

Moreover, on the whole they don’t like to write and especially dislike being held to university-level writing standards. They also don’t like faculty to be critical of their writing, which I uniformly am.

Granted, if you talk to writing instructors they may paint a more complimentary scenario of their students – mostly I think because students are more proficient writing fictional assignments than the non-fiction homework and essays that those of us in business, the social sciences, health professions, the basic sciences and other applied disciplines require.

Speak to the rest of the faculty though – from virtually any discipline – and eyes roll and the stories come forth – endlessly. For instance, I recently spoke to a colleague in the sciences about this problem and his demeanor became stern as he acknowledged that frankly he had given up on dealing with their writing problems since he was confronted with either teaching his subject or teaching composition.

So, in an era when most of us are downright embarrassed about giving bachelor’s degrees to students who can’t read or write at the level of what a college graduate ought to be exhibiting our leaders in Tallahassee want to further dumb down the FCAT – additionally lowering performance standards.

Granted state officials are responding to test results from the implementation of new FCAT writing standards and an abbreviated examination period, but even so, what is the Florida State Department of Education communicating when it chooses to lower the score threshold rather than increase teacher and student preparation to take the test? Commissioner Gerald Robinson defends the composition portion of the FCAT and denies that his agency is dumbing down expectations. In a news Friday news conference he defended the decision to lower the score threshold on the written portion of the FCAT asserting that his department didn’t “lower the standards, but merely lowered the bar for measuring its impact on how the writing scores are used to evaluate the schools.”

What does he mean? What kind of meta-speak is this? How is lowering the threshold for passing this portion of the FCAT not a diminution of standards?

So how do you feel about this issue? The state tells of us 48% of all ninth-graders are failing this portion of the FCAT and half of all tenth-graders, and faculty like me are telling you that the overwhelming majority of our university students can’t write, so is this good for Florida, for our students and for the nation?

The answer is clearly NO! We can and must do better.

An excellent starting point to address this problem involves abandoning the FCAT entirely so that we finally quit teaching to tests and teach subjects and develop skills instead. Teachers across the state at all levels would welcome this change. With the FCAT jettisoned to the “terrible ideas dustbin” we could then devote our efforts toward increasing expectations among our students regarding their writing skills and invest in whatever it takes to improve those scores – and that applies to immigrant students and native born.

Those who came to our shores from other countries in generations past learned how to master these skills so why should we expect less. ALL our students can do better and we should increase our expectations of them.

Then lets agree to increase admission standards to higher education and quit admitting students who are ill prepared for study until they demonstrate their skills. If we need to invest additionally to get students to this level then we do it – period.

In the interest of realizing this state of affairs, we would be well advised to work toward getting the federal and state government out of our local schools. Maybe bringing all the curriculum decisions back to local school districts – smaller districts with more parental involvement – might also aid us in this effort. I can foresee that local control and decision making in the development of local education might also lead to fruitful innovation and competition that would likewise be welcome.

These ideas I am sure would bear fruit, but further dumbing down an already progressively dumbed down school curriculum is only going to serve to destroy our democracy, our economy and our national integrity.

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