Illinois Drops Writing From Standardized Tests, Worrying Educators

The state of Illinois will no longer test its high schoolers on their writing skills, in a move that is designed to cut costs but leads some educators to wonder if the skills will fall out of favor in the classroom.

According to the Chicago Tribune, which broke the story Wednesday, the state is hoping to save $2.4 million a year by cutting the tests. "Writing is one of the most expensive things to assess," state Schools Superintendent Christopher Koch told the Trib. And with the state facing an enormous budget deficit, it's looking for cuts wherever it can find them.

Plus, federal dollars are harder to come by for writing tests. As an article on WBEZ points out, the federal No Child Left Behind legislation doesn't mandate that students be tested in writing, and it doesn't provide funding for writing tests either.

But some instructors worry that without the tests, teachers -- who face mounting pressure to show improvements in test scores -- will focus on the subjects that are on the tests, like math and reading, and will let writing skills fall by the wayside.

"Good teachers, good schools, good principals don't need a test," Barbara Kato, director of the Chicago Area Writing Project, said in the Tribune story. "But the problem is, without the test, the focus on writing as a whole ends up taking a back seat."

She went on to tell the Trib that the state also cancelled the writing tests in 2004. Far fewer teachers requested training in writing instruction the following year. Demand for the training surged again when the tests were reinstated two years later.

At least one teacher provided a counterpoint: "I think it offers some freedom," said teacher Heather Schwartz of Pfc. Omar Torres Charter School in Chicago in a story in the Republic of Columbus, Indiana.

As usual, though, Rich Miller at the Capitol Fax, the pre-eminent state politics blog in Illinois, minced no words on the subject. "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," he wrote Wednesday. "But I learned very early in life that writing forces one to actually think. ... This cut is absolutely the wrong way to go."

Regardless of how valuable a life skill it may be, writing is certainly in increased demand among graduating high schoolers heading to college. The SAT now contains a writing portion, as do most end-of-year Advanced Placement tests, which colleges also consider in evaluating students.