OMG, Illinois legislates illiteracy

by David Alm on July 19, 2011

Illinois has dropped writing skills from its standardized testing for high school juniors and will focus only on reading and arithmetic. Officials claim that this will save the state $2.4 million. Writing tests for younger pupils were dropped last year. So now they can type (using their thumbs) “u r 2 dum 2 x-pres urself, dude, LMAO” without even the slightest twinge of disquietude or sense of loss.

The opening lines of this post were written by my father, a professional writer, lifelong resident of Illinois, and a product of its public schools up until he went off to college, at Augustana in Rock Island, where he majored in English. He posted them on my Facebook wall, suggesting that I write a blog post on the topic. Excellent idea, I thought. But I thought I’d do so by way of some family history.

My father’s childhood was spent in the small town of Kewanee, on the western side of the state just south of Rock Island, where he and my mother have lived for the past 33 years. My mother was born and raised in a Chicago suburb, and attended public schools there until she went to Augustana to study French and German. She’s also quite fluent in English. I was raised in Rock Island and attended public schools there until I was 14, when I escaped to the greener pastures of the Iowa public school system, just across the Mississippi River. I’d grown weary of the overcrowded classrooms, drug-sniffing dogs, metal detectors in every doorway, and getting mugged in the bathroom by wannabe gangbangers. My parents, like me, could tell that I was not receiving a decent education at Rock Island High School, and that I might even drop out merely to spare myself the constant headache of being there.

And that was more than 20 years ago. I can only imagine that the quality of my first high school has declined even further. Now, with the state deciding to save money by cutting writing skills from its list of requirements, how much worse will it get ?

If you ask my father, whose entire career has been built upon his superlative grasp of the English language — as a teacher, a journalist, a speechwriter for John Deere, and for the last 12 years of his career, the editor of a magazine with international distribution — I suspect that he’d tell you that this won’ t save Illinois money. To the contrary, it will cost the state, and the nation, billions. What’s more, neither he nor my mother would ever grow into the people they became if they were going through Illinois public schools today.

Nor, for that matter, would have Abraham Lincoln.

Generations yet unborn being allowed to pass through the system without grasping basic language skills can only signal the demise of civilization. And if you think I’m being extreme, show me one illiterate society that has prospered. Or just go watch Mike Judge’s prescient, and hilarious, film, Idiocracy.

Thanks, Illinois.

Brian Alm July 20, 2011 at 9:05 am

In between Lincoln and me was my father, who got an eighth-grade education in a one-room country school, as a result of which he could quote Emerson, Shakespeare and long passages from Longfellow, do algebra and explain the political history of the U.S. He studied on his own and became licensed as an ICC law practitioner, then taught ICC law at the graduate level. (u wudnt git 2 do that 2day w-out a doctrit.) Still, it bugged him that he didn’t have a high school diploma, so at 53 he got a GED, with a score of 100%. His writing — crisp, precise and elegantly structured — and his determination to learn on his own inspired me. So of course I just reflexively passed that on to David, who’s now a better writer than both of us. The question is, how much is going to be passed on down through families in Illinois when the reservoir is dry to begin with?

Jeff McMahon July 20, 2011 at 9:38 am

Let me just ask, in the spirit of devilish advocacy: The complaint I hear most about standardized testing is that it forces teachers to teach to the test. Could removing writing from the test free teachers to teach writing better? Removing writing from the test is not the same as removing writing from the curriculum… is it?

artemis July 20, 2011 at 9:45 am

I never took a writing test in my junior year of high school. In fact, we rarely wrote anything in my high school of 5000 in grades 9-12. There just wasn’t time for the teacher to read them. However, I was teaching French at RIHS when there was a writing test for juniors. The test didn’t make them better writers, but the test did make teachers teach them to be better writers. In fact, ALL teachers, including French, PE, Home Ec. etc., had to spend some time teaching their students how to write persuasive essays, the test type for that year. Students in grades 9-12 had to do this even though they wouldn’t take the test for another year or two or had already done so. So, test or no test, teachers should teach their students to write. You never know when they might have to reply to a blog somewhere.

David Alm July 21, 2011 at 7:06 am

Jeff – My only concern there is that teachers will not take it upon themselves to teach writing precisely because they no longer have to. This isn’t entirely their fault, though: no doubt they will have a list of other skills they’re expected to teach, which the students will be tested on, and they’ll spend their time in class entirely on those. Moreover, the teachers themselves would have to be good writers — or at least understand what good writing is — if they’re going to teach it.

I appreciate your optimistic view of Illinois high school teachers, but having been educated in that state’s system for my first eight years of formal schooling, and having taught college kids coming out of the Chicago public schools, I don’t share it.

Still, you’re right that “teaching to the test” is a problem in our educational system in general, and for that reason alone, I can see the positive side to this — namely that teachers will be freed from one more “tested” requirement of their teaching. Maybe, hopefully, this will signal the end of such testing completely, and teachers will be able to resume the practice of teaching as it was done when my grandfather and parents were in school. It clearly worked then, why can’t it work now?

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