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Kicking 'FCAT essay' habit

Instructors beg teachers to unfetter student writers from THE FORMULA. (Three points! Five paragraphs!) Authors can score and sizzle.

By REBECCA CATALANELLO
Published February 1, 2004

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Kaylee's writing conflict
[Times photo: Brendan Fitterer]
USF Tampa Bay Area Writing Project instructor Jennifer Albritton works with students, from left, Brittany Dine, 16, Lauren Crane, 15, Jamie Barag, 15, and Jillian McVeigh, 15, to develop their persuasive writing skills Jan. 14, at Mitchell High School in New Port Richey.

NEW PORT RICHEY - Kaylee Stark, 16, thinks she has a flair for writing. Words flow. Adverbs arrive effortlessly. When she writes about things she enjoys, her written voice is clear and crisp, confident and descriptive.

But ask the New Port Richey teen and her honors English buddies what they've learned about writing in their 11 years of school, and they don't miss a beat.

"The three-point-five essay," says Mitchell High 10th-grader Justin Ross. "Three points, five paragraphs."

Not exactly how Faulkner won his Nobel Prize in literature.

From the time they start taking the FCAT writing test in the fourth grade, Florida students are taught how to navigate the 45-minute exam.

That's good for scores, critics say, but often terrible for the emerging writer.

"We teach the love of writing right out of kids," says Mary Osborne, the Writing Project Coordinator for Pinellas County schools. She wants to scrub the FCAT from the minds of writing teachers and students.

"I call it a whole other genre," she says. "It's test-writing."

Stark has figured that much out.

When she writes for pleasure, Stark strives for effect, atmosphere and subtlety. But when she writes for the test, she takes no chances.

On Feb. 10, the next time the test will be given, she will do the best she can in five paragraphs, making three points and using the kinds of transitional words she has been told readers enjoy - "first," "next," "in conclusion."

"It's like mechanics," Stark says. "I do what they want, I spit it out and then I move on."

Writing to score

State officials say test results prove the FCAT is helping Florida students become better writers.

Since the test was first administered in 1993, fourth-graders have improved their average scores from a 2 to a 3.6 on a scale of 1 to 6. Eighth-graders have gone from a 3 to a 3.9. Tenth-graders have zoomed from a 2.9 to a 3.8. (A 3 is considered passing; almost 90 percent of Florida students last year scored a 3 or above.)

But a lot of teachers aren't impressed.

"The best writing doesn't necessarily get the highest scores," says Carol Jones, a literacy specialist at Pasco County's Mitchell High, where writing is being emphasized schoolwide this year. "I've had phenomenal writers who get a four and very basic writers who get a five - because they're following the rules."

The rules?

Cornelia Orr, administrator of the state Department of Education's Assessment and School Performance Office, says the only rules are those that define quality writing.

"The state in no way endorses formulaic writing," Orr says. There is nothing in the test's grading requirements, she says, that demands students write five paragraphs, make three points or use specific transition words.

The only requirement is that students write for 45 minutes in response to a "prompt" revealed at the start of the test. (Example: "Everyone has jobs or chores. Think about why you do one of your jobs or chores. Now explain why you do your job or chore.")

Hundreds of trained readers - paid an average of $11.25 an hour - then review the essays for focus, organization, support, details and conventional accuracy such as spelling and grammar.

Orr says a student once responded to a test prompt with a poem. It scored a perfect 6.

So where did these formulas come from?

The testing trap

Jennifer Albritton walks between the library tables while lecturing Stark's class about writing. She pauses before an overhead projector and looks out at the students to emphasize a point.

"It's okay to create!" the Tampa Bay Area Writing Project instructor exclaims. "That's what writers do. They create."

Albritton and Pat Daniels, director of the University of South Florida-based program, are on a mission to help teachers draw out students' best work. They have no interest, they say, in helping them teach how to make that crucial 3 on the FCAT.

Teachers grab hold of formulas like the five-paragraph essay because they provide manageable solutions to the often elusive question of how to teach writing, Daniels says.

Put that insecurity next to the fact that schools are graded according to their students' test scores, and teachers panic. Even Orr acknowledges that a three-point-five essay will get you a 3.

"It's counterproductive," Daniels says. "When there's so much pressure for everybody to cross the bar, then that's what we focus on instead of focusing on, "How high can we go?"'

George Hillocks, a retired University of Chicago English professor, wrote about the impact of standardized assessments in his book, The Testing Trap: How Statewide Writing Assessments Control Learning. He says that even if they don't specifically require the five-paragraph style, tests such as the FCAT encourage formulas because they ask students to draw on personal experience.

A five-paragraph structure provides an easy way for nonwriters to fill the space and meet the minimal requirements, Hillocks says.

But allowing students to make things up wastes opportunities to teach critical thinking. Hillocks calls such writing "bluther."

"I think writing is thinking," he says. "It's not just writing a pretty sentence."

Beyond the formula

When the writing test was first required for school districts more than a decade ago, Pinellas County's Mary Osborne responded by pulling in fourth-grade teachers and showing them how the test would be graded.

Several years later, she realized that test-taking strategies were trickling down all the way to kindergarteners. As soon as children were learning to hold a pencil, they were learning the test.

Osborne began to change her approach. Now, in her training sessions with fourth-grade teachers, she doesn't mention the FCAT until after lunch. Instead, the focus is on encouraging creativity, giving students opportunities to get feedback and helping teachers learn what it means to become writers.

That last piece is critical, Osborne says, because otherwise it's like "taking swimming lessons when the teacher's never been in the water."

"I went back to the teaching of writing," Osborne says. "Form is not a negative thing, but it is a negative thing when that's all that's taught."

The fear of slipping test scores, however, is ever-present for teachers. A 2002 survey by Boston College's National Board on Educational Testing and Public Policy found that teachers were much more likely to alter their instruction and focus on test-taking strategies in environments where high stakes are attached.

Those fears are prompting a backlash of sorts by curriculum leaders in the Tampa Bay area.

In Hillsborough County, which has seen tremendous improvement in its overall writing scores, secondary Language Arts supervisor Patricia Bishop and her colleagues are using a presentation called "Writing Beyond the Formula" to dissuade teachers from pushing the five-paragraph essay.

At Pine View Middle School in Land O'Lakes, the administration responded to worries that emerging authors weren't being challenged by developing a special program for 50 of the school's most talented writers.

The Tampa Bay Writing Project instructors - who normally work with teachers - are encouraging students and their parents to think of themselves as working writers.

The one thing most writing teachers say they appreciate about the FCAT is the way it has shined a spotlight on writing instruction.

Such attention is likely to increase.

Next year in Florida, the passing benchmark for the writing test will be raised to 3.5, thanks to lobbying by language arts teachers who didn't believe a 3 essay represents quality.

By 2006-07, it will be a 4.

The state also is tweaking the writing test in preparation for requiring students to pass it to graduate, a change Orr says is still five or six years down the road.

Meanwhile, teachers such as Mitchell High's Jones are doing everything they can to kick kids out of the five-paragraph habit. She says the convention is so ingrained that students have written what were supposed to be 10-page term papers composed entirely in five paragraphs.

She's crossing her fingers that the antiformula works when students go into testing Feb. 10.

"The proof is in the pudding," she says. "We'll see what our scores are. We might be doing the five-paragraph essay next year!"

- Times researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Rebecca Catalanello can be reached at 1-800-333-7505, ext. 6241 or rcatalanello@sptimes.com

[Last modified February 1, 2004, 01:45:59]


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