Standard deviations: Creative writers take standardized writing tests?

Students at the Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology produce the highest SAT and ACT scores in the nation. All of the students take at least one Advanced Placement exam, with 97 percent of them scoring well enough to receive college credit. But those high scores don’t come without intellectual cost. In taking preparatory courses for the SAT and ACT, or in preparing for the myriad AP and state tests, students often default to formulaic writing. In doing so, there is an inevitable closing of the mind; the traditional essay becomes the only acceptable mode of response, and oversimplified, superficial, and binary answers are the result.

The good news is that creative writing and standardized testing are not mutually exclusive. By encouraging students to consider multiple genre possibilities in responding to writing prompts, teachers can lead students toward more complex and creative thinking.

An early autumn harvest of five-paragraph nonfiction

In September, our English department gave each eleventh-grade student in the school sixty minutes to respond to the following Virginia End-of-Course (EOC) Writing Test prompt: “Thomas Jefferson wrote, ‘Determine never to be idle….It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.’ Do we accomplish more if we are always doing something, or does inactivity also serve a purpose?”

The writing that came back was the sort of water torture only the steady drip of five-paragraph essays can inflict upon an English teacher: An introduction that ends in an obvious thesis statement; a paragraph on Thomas Jefferson; a paragraph on Bill Gates; a paragraph on high-achieving high school students. Basically a carefully organized piece that had the writer staying very safe and demonstrating little thought.

Only one student, Dana (all student names in this article are pseudonyms), had written something other than a traditional essay. She chose a screenplay format to express her response. With her permission, I shared what she had written with the rest of the class. Dana’s writing featured an unhappily married couple—a workaholic husband who routinely clocked sixty or more hours a week at the office, and his wife at home with nothing to do. The husband eventually committed a white collar crime, and the final scene found him in a jail cell alone—with nothing to do. While Dana hadn’t written an explicit thesis statement, her screenplay argued that we should opt for a balance between action and inaction. Most of the class had never considered writing creatively in response to a standardized writing prompt, but Dana’s example had inspired them—it gave them permission and encouragement to explore other possibilities beyond the traditional essay.

A Christmas miracle of creative writing

In December, our English department again gave each eleventh-grade student in the school sixty minutes to respond to another EOC Writing Test prompt: “Author Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote, ‘To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.’ Do you agree or disagree with Emerson’s statement about individuality?”

The majority of responses were not traditional essays; there were interviews, plays, short stories, poems, narratives, and satires. This time, the responses were more focused, more willing to challenge the prompt: Is the world constantly trying to make you something else? Is individuality the greatest accomplishment? How do we measure accomplishment? Most students didn’t fully agree or disagree with Emerson. Some were very candid about their lack of surety. They were displaying the best aspects of Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s “good learners”; in the authors’ words, students like these “do not need to have an absolute, final, irrevocable resolution to every problem. The sentence, ‘I don’t know,’ does not depress them, and they certainly prefer it to the various forms of semantic nonsense that pass for ‘answers’ to questions that do not as yet have any solution—or may never have one.”

Was there a connection between the creative writing and complex thinking my students produced? In writing a free-verse poem, Justin strayed a far distance from the rigid format of the five-paragraph essay, a “preset format” that “lulls students into a non-thinking automacity.” By focusing on a central protagonist, Michelle achieved thoughtful depth rather than superficial breadth. Heather, by turning her story over to a frightened, confused, sixteen-year-old narrator, was able to ask a series of hard questions of both the prompt and herself. In giving voices to their characters and narrators, my students put their individual fingerprints on each paragraph. Those who wrote fiction were able to develop and address counterarguments through dialogue between foils. Many of the fictionalized pieces were reflections of their writers’ lives, and real life often defies ready-made templates, generalizations, and easy answers. Ironically, the fiction from the second round seemed to reflect the real world more accurately than the essays from the first, even when those essays were about real people.

My students and I began to wonder if they could replicate these successes on the actual EOC Writing test. Would they be required to write essays? What constitutes an essay, anyway? Together we looked up the word’s definition. It is a ‘short literary composition…usually in prose.” That last phrase, “usually in prose,” meant that some essays aren’t written in prose. Short stories, plays, and poems all qualify as short literary compositions.

We started looking more closely at actual EOC Writing prompts. All of them asked for a “response,” not an essay. All of the online anchor papers were traditional essays, but did that mean it wasn’t possible or permissible to write one?

As a class, we weighed potential consequences. If students were to fail the test for writing creatively, they would be placed in remediation and have to take the test again. They could then either write an essay or continue to write creatively, failing the test a second time. All students felt that they would have an argument if they failed. After all, they were following the directions given to them, and their work satisfied all the requirements of the scoring rubric.

The Rites of Spring and beyond

Of the sjxty-eight students who took the actual 2014 Virginia EOC Writing Test, thirty-three of them chose to write plays, short stories, diary entries, letters, interviews, and personal narratives. All thirty-three of those students passed at the advanced level, some with perfect scores.

Several students have gone on to write creative pieces on the SAT Writing section. Angela chose to write in the voice of Holden Caulfield from The Catcher in the Rye. Jiyoon wrote a short story about himself taking the SAT—a meta response. David crafted a story about a husband who reconfigures his work-life balance in the wake of his wife’s death. All of them achieved nearly perfect scores.

Deconstructing the norm

These results should begin to dispel the myth that creativity, questioning, and deep thinking in K–12 education—especially on standardized tests—are more likely to be punished than rewarded. And yet the myth persists. Heather recently showed me her response to a practice ACT essay. She had written a short story, and her teacher had awarded her a 2 out of 6: “Creative and entertaining! However, standardized tests (unfortunately) require a more formal argument.” Gifted students can be particularly vulnerable to this mythology. They are naturally thoughtful and creative, but many of them are also high-achievers with their sights set on Ivy League schools. They perceive that their teachers want a certain type of writing, or that a certain formula will yield a perfect—or at least safe—score. College writing instructors, meanwhile, “spend the first half of their semester un-teaching the skills and traits students acquired during high school, encouraging initiative, autonomy, and invention.” In trying to please teachers, test makers, and admissions officers, gifted students can become very adept at “the game of school.”

As teachers of the gifted, we bear a particular responsibility to “reject a focus on right answers and conventional methods, in other words, not only because it promotes shallow learning but because it promotes passive acceptance.” We can begin by supporting creativity in responding to writing prompts, but we can also ask our students to reconsider what a presentation might look like, or how a research paper could be written. Our students’ test scores—whether high or low—do not matter as much as their willingness to take reasonable risks when writing, speaking, and thinking in complex and creative terms. Some skills, after all, are more important than the ability to write a good essay.

This blog post, an excerpt from Teaching for High Potential (published in summer 2016), is by Michael H. Miller, a consultant with the Northern Virginia Writing Project who teaches English at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia.

Editor's note: This is part of a series of blog posts that is collaboratively published every week by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and National Association for Gifted Children. Each post in the series exists both here on the NAGC Blog and on Fordham's Flypaper.