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Writing test controversy has citizens paying twice

November 10, 2000

Writing test controversy has citizens paying twice



Is bad writing like a rotten piece of fruit - so obviously spoiled that anyone looking at it can tell that it's not worth consuming? Or are judgments about writing so subjective that it's impossible to say whether student writing samples are good or bad? That's the question facing the Pennsylvania Department of Education, which is being confronted by a court challenge to its new basic skills writing test.

We have to side with the education department; writing can be functional without being a literary masterwork. But if student writing can't organize and communicate basic ideas, then by definition it's bad writing.

The court challenge came last month from the Seneca Valley School District in Butler County, Pa. The district argued before the Commonwealth Court that because state lawmakers removed the word "writing" from the definition of the state's basic skills test in June, the district - or by implication any school district - shouldn't have to administer the writing portion of the test.

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Judge Eunice Ross ruled in the district's favor, and is now considering the district's request to bar the education department from taking any action that would punish the district. Department officials are undeterred, saying that reading and writing are so "intertwined that they are corresponding skills." Therefore, they said, they will continue to argue that the test should be administered.

Two things are evident here. The first is that when the state legislature starts tinkering with education, bad things happen. In this case, it's two government agencies fighting each other, with citizens paying two sets of legal bills.

The second is a fact that any English teacher will confirm - that not every good reader is a good writer. Those students who read a lot tend to be better writers, if only because they see more examples of good writing. But in our experience, it takes more than reading classes to improve writing skills. And if Pennsylvania citizens want graduates who can write something other than gibberish, they will accept that fact that writing is a basic skill that needs to be tested.

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