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Pound foolish

Wednesday, Jul 6, 2011

* The state will no longer test 11th graders for writing skills

Gov. Pat Quinn signed the belt-tightening move into law last week as part of the state’s spending plan. The writing assessments for elementary and middle school students already had been dropped last year.

“We’re trying to minimize the damage” of the cuts, state Schools Superintendent Christopher Koch said. “Writing is one of the most expensive things to assess.”

I’m not a huge fan of standardized tests. I’m also not that into the grammar police. Heck, I couldn’t diagram a sentence if you put a gun to my head.

But I learned very early in life that writing forces one to actually think. Sometimes, I don’t even know where I stand on an issue until I write about it. Other times, I’ve changed my mind in the middle of a column or a blog post and had to redo everything. That’s one of the reasons I hector my commenters here. When people are pressed to express an original thought, minds can be opened. I’ve seen it happen many times.

* Yet, in today’s education world, once the testing requirement is removed, the bottom falls out of the incentive to teach the subject …

When the state did away with the grade school writing test last year, requests for teacher training in writing instruction at the elementary and middle school level plummeted. The same drop-off occurred in 2004, said Kato of the Chicago Area Writing Project. Demand surged when the writing exam was revived two years later.

Total savings from eliminating this test? $2.4 million.

Teaching people to write is akin to the age-old proverb about teaching a hungry man to fish. This cut is absolutely the wrong way to go.

* Speaking of the budget, does Gov. Pat Quinn even know what he proposed earlier this year? Apparently not.

A group of pastors complained yesterday about how the new state budget drastically cuts funds for indigent burials. Quinn was pressed on the issue by reporters yesterday and he said he’d do what he could to make sure “there is a decent funeral for anyone,” adding, “It is something I take to heart.” However

Quinn’s [original] budget had proposed cutting the program to zero. The version approved by the House and Senate cut the program to $1.9 million, from $12.6 million in the last fiscal year.

- Posted by Rich Miller        

  1. - WizardOfOzzie - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 4:36 am:

    I couldn’t agree more. Especially since we are in the age of Twitter, instant message, and Facebook wall posts. It will always be a valuable skill to write clearly and concisely.

  2. - I don't want to live in Teabagistan - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 7:13 am:

    Me fail English? That’s unpossible.

  3. - Angry Chicagoan - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 7:51 am:

    Perverse indeed. Of course, standardized testing has all kinds of problems, so what do they do? They go and get rid of the best, most benign, most qualitative, most real-world part of it, and leave all the lesser bits in place.

  4. - pylorus - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 7:52 am:

    As a teacher at a failing school we use the content on the state tests as a starting point for our curriculum, and I can see this changing our current English classes’ curriculum. That being said, I know that as a science teacher every science question on the PSAE is multiple choice, but my students still write essays and have to answer critical thinking questions in written form. I agree with you Rich, writing makes your think,

  5. - Justice - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 8:18 am:

    I would have to say that this is a “Good Grief” moment!. Talk about dumbing down your children. This move will most certainly do just that.

    If there is no way to assess progress, how does one properly teach writing, or why would they even then focus on writing ability?

    I suppose if you have twitter and abbreviated texting, the need for proper grammar isn’t required.

    Now, let’s get rid of math testing, and of course history. We can just focus on the gooder stuff likes shopping and hanging out.

    Governor….is you nuts, or is you ain’t?

  6. - wordslinger - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 8:22 am:

    You better believe schools teach to the standardized tests. Those school report cards are big deals — lots of pressure from administrators, parents, and real estate interests to get those scores up.

    I couldn’t agree more about the writing. I would add reading. My experience with my kids is that there’s not nearly enough of it in schools until high school and advanced placement courses. It was required at home, though.

  7. - Small Town Liberal - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 8:28 am:

    I agree, but I certainly don’t know what the alternatives are. In this current atmosphere of cut everything mentality, I worry that the consequences won’t be apparent until a whole generation of young people get shortchanged.

  8. - bbeaner - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 8:34 am:

    Writing skills are very important in undergrad and at post-grad level, most of the work is paper writing. why are we dumbing down our kids?

  9. - bbeaner - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 8:36 am:

    we put millions into sports program but little into education

  10. - wordslinger - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 8:40 am:

    –we put millions into sports program but little into education –

    In K-12? C’mon.

  11. - Jimmy CrackCorn - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 8:43 am:

    ==why are we dumbing down our kids?==

    So Sears doesn’t move to Michigan. So Cat doesn’t move to South Dakota. So Motorola will continue laying people off here instead of laying people off in California.

    Kids(+elderly, disabled, etc) = Collateral damage in a hostage situation

  12. - Springfield Skeptic - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 8:45 am:

    Here’s a real world consequence. A friend is an adjunct professor at a local university. She tells the story of one of her students studying to be a teacher that submitted her assignments filled with things like IMHO, LMAO, OMG, etc. and couldn’t understand why my friend, her instructor, graded her so low on her assignments.

  13. - soccermom - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 9:15 am:

    One of the things that Illinois can offer employers is an educated workforce. If we lose that advantage, we’ll lose employers — even with race-to-the-bottom tax incentives.

  14. - JustaJoe - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 9:42 am:

    Myopic decision. In this environment of testing as the end-game of educational effectiveness, you get what you measure. School districts push for better test scores. If something is not measured, it will be discounted. Saying that writing is difficult to assess means that it takes judgment….heaven forbid!!!

    Being a technical person, I think we need to emphasize math and science more; but that does not mean diminishing the ability to write. Being able to write, especially in the technical arena, is commensurate with the ability to THINK. And support for other basics like art are also important. Better to pay less attention to social politically-correct indoctrinations than to diminish training in the basics. I’d offer also that testing as now done is an incomplete and misleading metric. Are children learning, or are they being conditioned to pass the tests? And even with that…the system is doing poorly.

  15. - Skeeter - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 10:08 am:

    In order to improve our schools, we need merit pay for teachers.

    It is tough to pay based on merit when you don’t have standarized tests. This is yet another roadblock in the way of serious reform.

    On a somewhat related note, has Quinn simply decided to blow his “annoy” wad all the first year of his term? Is there anybody who is not deeply offended by at least one thing the man has done? Does he care?

  16. - Wumpus - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 10:21 am:

    Rich, you may not can diagram uh sentense but writing are part of you’re professhun. You due just fines. This be tragic that we are allowing these thing too happen. Students are tuurbul at commincating as it are, this will making things worser.

  17. - Commonsense in Illinois - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 10:40 am:

    This is a huge mistake. It’s too expensive to teach our kids to write clear and concise thoughts? I just don’t get it!

  18. - Team Sleep - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 10:46 am:


    Writing is such an important part of most professional jobs. College professors - even those at community/junior colleges - are sticklers on writing proficient papers. Essays are still requirements for entry into most schools, and many scholarship bodies also require essays. This is a silly idea. Everything is about math and science. That’s fine, but kids need to be proficient in all areas. It’s important for high school students to learn history, civics, budget management, life skills, writing/comprehension and even physical fitness - not just science and math.

  19. - bored with press - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 10:51 am:

    Rich, I couldn’t agree more. Writing is a way to learn to think and process arguments. It helps people learn logic and argumentation.

    Currently, the writing of college freshmen in Illinois is barely literate. I am not exaggerating. There are barely coherent sentences, much less whole paragraphs. I can’t imagine things getting worse than that. And these are the ones who make it to college.

  20. - A.B. - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 10:51 am:

    I do wonder if testing these kids in 11th grade is too late?

  21. - Wensicia - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 10:59 am:

    Writing is the last skill that is truly taught as it should be, all other subject matter has been reduced to what’s on the test, test taking skills. Our state continues to dumb down the curriculum, while reducing the significance of test scores. The result, a student population less prepared for the real world, let alone college.

    We’ve actually been encouraged to promote social media skills in instruction, the bane of grammar. The future writing final exam will probably be in 140 characters, or less. C U L8TR!

  22. - Shore - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 11:00 am:

    Maybe a bored republican legislative staffer could post some of the things that were funded instead of funding this test which strikes me as something that would have 100 percent support from voters. Like some ridiculous salaries or programs.

    This is pathetic.

  23. - LocalGovGuy - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 11:00 am:

    The way I see it, the problem is us. We expect the state to mandate testing to force OUR schools to emphasize writing. We should be at our school board meetings insisting that they direct the superintendent, etc. to emphasize writing. I have been to dozens of school board meetings over the years and very few community members show up when cuts to education are discussed. The angry mob always shows if there is a hint of cuts to sports. Don’t blame Quinn or the state on this one. Blame yourself.

  24. - amalia - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 11:01 am:

    do kids take the SATs/ACTs in junior year? how do these tests relate to the writing assessment? I recall that the SAT had a verbal portion and a math portion. is this the same as it was several years ago? just how many standardized tests do kids have to prepare for?
    while I agree that writing skills are quite important, I think that the best way to perfect them is by being assigned to write. once upon a time, we all wrote “themes.” (see “A Christmas Story” if you have forgotten what that means.) shouldn’t kids be given lots of writing assignments?

  25. - Faculty Instructor - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 11:05 am:

    We need much more reading and writing in Illinois schools. Nothing is more frustrating to me as a college instructor than to see college students having to be sent to remedial classes in English and in Writing Skills. Somewhere, these students were socially promoted and many are wholly unprepared for more demanding classes. It was a sad day when a faculty continuing education class started with the observation that we must assume that most of our students would never read their assigned textbooks.

  26. - wordslinger - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 11:10 am:

    –We’ve actually been encouraged to promote social media skills in instruction,–

    Like kids need that in school. I pulled my middle school student out of a “21st Century Technology” elective when I discovered that it was just surfing the web. That he knew how to do already.

  27. - CircularFiringSquad - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 11:13 am:

    1. Springfield Skeptic …does your friend remember quill pens, manual typewriters..pre South Park stuff?

    2. Teachers…under pressure…give us a break.

    3. How about we teach kids to think, invent the next Twitter and join the Capt Fax on the chaise in south Beach.

  28. - Michelle Flaherty - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 11:16 am:

    C’mon folks. You’ve all heard Pat Quinn’s speeches. And now you’re surprised that funding for writing is being cut?
    If he doesn’t need it, why should anyone else?

  29. - Small Town Liberal - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 11:17 am:

    - I pulled my middle school student out of a “21st Century Technology” elective when I discovered that it was just surfing the web. -

    Ah c’mon Word, as evidenced by the number of people commenting here every day, that class would have been great preparation for the workplace.

  30. - Ghost - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 11:22 am:

    Setting aside any unintended irony, I couldnt agree more. :)

    I often buy kids notebooks and encourage them to write down thoughts, stories etc.


  31. - kdruben - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 11:28 am:

    The State cut the funding for the writing on the ISAT (grades 3-8) last year and so this was the logical next step. The good news is that there is still writing on every exam (a few readers response questions on every reading test) and with the new Common Core Standards writing in context is likely to come back. What Illinois should have done is find an online essay grader (there are a few good ones out there) that would have given scores instantly and rather inexpensively.

    And to Wordslinger who pulled his middle schooler out of a 21st Century Technology course… what did he get to do instead of surfing the web?

  32. - Wensicia - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 11:29 am:


    The combination PSAE/ACT juniors take consist of the following

    “The PSAE includes three components: (1) the ACT Plus Writing, which includes the ACT battery of four multiple-choice tests (English, mathematics, reading, and science) and a 30-minute constructed-response writing test with a single prompt question; (2) an ISBE-developed science assessment, and (3) two WorkKeys assessments (Applied Mathematics and Reading for Information).”

    The 30 minute writing test is what’s being eliminated.

  33. - been there - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 11:32 am:

    Journaling by students makes huge work for teachers but pushes students into ALL of the lifelong-important things that everyone has talked about here this morning.

    And yes, it should start in first grade.

  34. - wordslinger - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 11:34 am:

    –what did he get to do instead of surfing the web?–

    Wood shop. So at least he would have the practical knowledge on how to use some tools when he refuses to help around the house.

  35. - Amuzing Myself - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 12:19 pm:

    More unintended separating of the haves from the have-nots by those who routinely accuse their political opponents of just that. More justification for parents who can afford it to send their kids to private school or homeschool them while kids who can’t afford those alternatives are stuck with dumbed-down curricula, then have to go head-to-head with the other kids in competing for college entrance/scholarships - especially academic scholarships. No wonder we keep electing these governors in Illinois. The general population is getting progressively less-educated, regardless of “graduation” rates or raw college admission numbers.

    On this specific issue, I think the testing of the 11th graders if far less-concerning than dropping the testing of the younger kids, as those have more time to get any special attention they may need.

  36. - Responsa - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 12:55 pm:

    This is not really about funding. It is about priorities. It is about important choices which must be made within existing funding parameters.

    I agree with all here who have said that in addition to writing, reading has been undertaught for a while. Also, recent articles in several major media outlets suggest that many high school and even college students are graduating with alarmingly little knowledge of American history. (Don’t know who our allies and enemies were in WWII, didn’t know what country we “declared our independence” from, or in what years –or even century– the civil war was fought.)

    Here is my question. Schools are open, kids are spending hours in classrooms, there is ongoing emphasis on teacher salaries. So, during this budget crunch, what WILL the students be learning and spending time on in class instead of being taught writing and reading in English classes? At the expense of these important life skills what are they supposedly learning that is of even greater value instead? In other words, as writing and reading and history is given increasingly short shrift in schools, what is it that is considered even more important to “save” by school admins.? Is whatever is left in that class day really as critical throughout the kids’ whole lives as being able to write? I doubt it. Priorities. (Math and science are important but alone do not take up an entire school day’s classes.)

  37. - VanillaMan - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 1:06 pm:

    End the test. Save the money. English writing has been going steadily down even with the tests. It isn’t like it helped.

  38. - lake county democrat - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 1:29 pm:

    ))But I learned very early in life that writing forces one to actually think.((

    It’s also one of the most valuable non-technical job skills one can have.

  39. - A Springfield Veteran - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 1:57 pm:

    The ability to write clearly is essential. I teach graduate students, both Americans and foreign students and unfortunately my foreign students are better; hands down. Americans pay little attention to basic composition and they do not read. So let’s just forget about writing? What a stupid decision.

  40. - amalia - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 2:38 pm:

    @Wensicia, thank you for this info. if this is part of the standardized test, and it is something the colleges count on, how can the state put kids and futures in jeopardy and eliminate it?

  41. - zatoichi - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 2:53 pm:

    Excellent decision. It is simply amazing how bad most writing has become. Get in a business that requires paragraphs of thought and read the day-to-day behind the scene material. My son is a GA at one of our fine universities. He has been shocked at how poorly many people write and how upset they get when he has to correct them.

  42. - Anonymous - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 3:03 pm:

    I am put in mind of a great story in the National Lampoon many years ago: “How to Write Good” by Michael O’Donoghue. Unfortunately, our state leaders seem to have made this satire an Illinois reality. Suddenly, they were run over by a truck. The End.

  43. - Anonymous - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 3:08 pm:

    Well, the pen USED to be mightier than the sword; but an under-educated populace is so much easier to control.

  44. - Yellow Dog Democrat - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 3:10 pm:

    Unless I’m mistaken, there’s not a single multiple choice question on the French standardized tests for college admission — they are essay, oral, and in some cases even include laboratory demonstration.

    Interesting side note…the original SAT was not multiple choice either. That didn’t happen for 40 years.

    Writing is a window in to the mind. If you don’t believe me, read the text of a Sarah Palin stump speech as its delivered.

    And I can tell you that of the top 50 skills that employers in the sciences look for, communication skills…both oral and written…dominate the list.

    That’s because individual women and men don’t build bridges, roads and schools…teams do. And team members who can’t communicate with each other are doomed to make costly mistakes.

    Still not the dumbest budget cut ever — that one is still cutting substance abuse treatment — but this ranks right up there.

  45. - waitress practing politics... - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 3:52 pm:

    imho i agree w/u
    Writing skills are important! Yes, it makes one think. Texting does not.

  46. - BIG R. Ph - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 3:59 pm:

    If you ever watch the obituary columns and notice a whole bunch at one time from a poor community you knew that the State cut some money to the funeral home operators. Otherwise the poor deceased just sits on ice until either:
    a) the family comes up with the money
    b) the state pays.

    If there is a 90% reduction in payments there is going to be a whole lotta grannies sitting on ice for a looooong time.

  47. - missred - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 4:12 pm:

    Writing goes the way of theatre, music, dancing, and the visual arts. The arts are technically a core academic subject according to state standards and No Child Left Behind, but because they aren’t tested, they’re one of the first things cut from classroom time and budgets.

    Soccermmom brings up the importance of an educated workforce to the long-term vitality of our state. According to The Conference Board, U.S. employers rate creativity and innovation among the top five skills that will increase in importance over the next five years, and rank it among the top challenges facing CEOs. How can we expect our children to exercise a creative mind if we don’t expose them to works of creativity and the creative process?

  48. - mushroom in the dark - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 9:34 pm:

    There should be more writing education, not less. This is a problem with college graduates now.

    Lack of critical thinking and lack of ability to write are common.

  49. - Silence Dogood - Wednesday, Jul 6, 11 @ 10:43 pm:

    I could not agree more. Writing is a key skill that must be taught in our schools.

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