Editor's Note: State Gets a Red 'F' for Ending Writing Tests

Sep 1, 2011

Dana Heupel
Credit NPR Illinois
When Bob Knight was coaching basketball at my Hoosier alma mater, he once belittled sports journalists by saying: “All of us learn to write in the second grade. Most of us go on to greater things.”

I remember thinking at the time: “Well, Coach, you literary lion, by second grade, I had learned the rules of basketball, but I doubt you’d find my skills good enough to play for you. And my guess is that you couldn’t meet my writing standards, either.”

I revisit it now because it seems that our governor and state education officials agree with Knight. Over the past two years, they have eliminated all standardized tests for writing — last year for grades three, five, six and eight to save $3.5 million; this year the only remaining exam, for 11th-graders, to save $2.4 million. Since writing tests no longer will begin in third grade and occur at regular intervals as students progress through K-12, Gov. Pat Quinn and the State Board of Education appear to concur with Knight that a second-grade proficiency is indeed sufficient.

The state budget cuts don’t forbid schools from teaching writing. But teachers’ and schools’ performance is now measured by how well students do on standardized tests — and that focus is reinforced by financial incentives. It’s only natural that they will spend classroom time and energy on the subjects that will be tested and neglect those areas that won’t (see page 25).

Amazingly, this new policy comes in an era when students are writing more than they have in recent memory, through text messages and Facebook posts and 140-character “tweets.” Writing instruction might even be more valuable to them than it was in the past.

I do understand that identifying topic sentences and ensuring that subjects and verbs agree can be boring and of questionable worth. But showing students what constitutes good writing — and what does not — reaps benefits that extend way beyond diagramming sentences.

It’s important for students to learn how a skilled writer leads readers effortlessly down a path to be explored, using precise words as a compass. That the route taken is direct, not confusing or cluttered or obscured by flowery thickets. That it is concise, a guideline that serves well when texting or posting online.

Writing can also be a form of creative expression, perhaps the only outlet for those who can’t play a musical instrument or draw a straight line. Even those who do possess other creative talents can benefit: Writing can often convey an idea that is impossible to express visually or aurally.

A recent example that rose up and confronted me was enfolded in an essay about Cesar Chavez in the July-August issue of The Atlanticmagazine. Here is what Caitlin Flanagan wrote about the United Farm Workers organizer:

“For a hundred reasons — some cynical, some not — he and Robert Kennedy were drawn to each other. The Kennedy name had great appeal to the workers Chavez was trying to cultivate; countless Mexican households displayed photographs of JFK, whose assassination they understood as a Catholic martyrdom rather than an act of political gun violence.”

Perhaps my interest was heightened by the fact that I lived for a while in the irrigated desert of central California where Chavez was based and where it was common to see Hispanic laborers in the fields in the early mornings picking vegetables or grapes or other fruit before the cruel afternoon heat made their work too dangerous. At any rate, Flanagan’s two sentences struck me as so well-constructed and gracefully expressed that I sought out my wife to read them aloud. That kind of occurrence happens occasionally but not nearly often enough.

Finally, clear writing exhibits clear thinking. For me, at least, the act of writing helps me mold an abstraction into a concrete expression, solidifying my own thoughts about an issue while I advance an argument. Perhaps that process is best expressed in a quote by the late New York Times reporter and columnist James Reston that hangs on my office wall: “How can I know what I think until I read what I write?”

We’ve all puzzled over the intent of a poorly written email that shows up in our inbox. Is it a joke? Is it a criticism? How do I respond? There’s no doubt that some communication can be achieved through “LOL” and “OMG.” But the transaction of ideas can be so much richer and to the point when the communicators have all the tools within their reach. 

Quinn, whose rambling speeches are legendary, and the State Board of Education don’t seem to realize that. Or they just don’t care.

• • •

This month, we unveil our redesign for Illinois Issues. Patty Sullivan, our talented graphic designer from Campus Services at the University of Illinois Springfield, created our new look.

To best display her new design elements, we are also now using full color throughout the magazine, instead of just on the cover and selected sections.

“I am excited about the move to a full-color format,” Sullivan says. “I chose the new accent color because to me, it is vibrant and energetic. For the layout, I wanted to freshen up the look of the magazine with more white space where possible, but not to radically alter the publication’s character.”

She has been designing Illinois Issues and maintaining the magazine’s website since April 2008. She holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and joined the Campus Services department at UIS (then Sangamon State) in 1990. She also is involved in designing many other elements of the university, from business cards to large murals.

We expect that our magazine’s design will continue to evolve, and we are interested in hearing ideas or suggestions from our readers. Please let us know what you think. 

Illinois Issues, September 2011