Saturday, August 18, 2012

What the World Needs Now

It may be unnecessary to say that in talking about what's wrong, I don't mean to pick on anybody in particular. Even if it is one person making specific mistakes, I tend to see this as a systemic ill, as previously discussed, rather than an opportunity to dogpile on an unwitting offender.

A systemic ill that is particularly pernicious in the test publishing industry. How can we expect kids to do well on tests when the tests themselves are riddled with error?

The safeguards are so simple:
1. provide adequate training (again, as previously discussed)
2. follow some kind of standard process for detecting and repairing error
3. use the information from #2 to supplement #1

These safeguards cost time and money, which explains why so many companies have gradually let them fall by the wayside. 

Training takes time and attention. I can't believe how fortunate I was to have received the training I did. In my first year as an associate editor, I probably had more training opportunities than editors now receive in a decade. It was a different era. The Great Big Huge Test Publishing Company at which I worked had an army of style editors, proofreaders, and QA personnel.

Over the last dozen years, I've seen companies completely dismantle their style editing departments and outsource the work to freelance editors. Now style editors (copy editors) are held in such low regard that if any Bright Young Thing with a talent for grammar and language conventions tells me she'd like to give this work a try, I steer her away from style editing and into content.  I hate doing it. I myself hold style editors in high esteem, maybe because often their job seems to be to keep me from making a fool of myself. What the world needs now--no disrespect intended to Dionne Warwick and Burt Bacharach--is more style editing.

Many companies have also dismantled their content development departments.

So there's no real continuity for item writers and content editors. They work on a project for one company and then skip to a project for another. The content development people who remain at the companies are overwhelmed and certainly don't have the time to provide training to freelancers; editors accept or reject items, which means they're likely to fix mistakes themselves, and so the item writer never hears of his mistakes and is free to repeat those mistakes forever in a state of unfortunate ignorant complacence.

Right now, I'm thinking of all this in terms of language conventions items, because I was reviewing a set this morning, but I'm sure this applies to all domains and content areas.

Right now, I offer some specific observations about language items:
1. When language items accompany an editing passage that contains embedded error, the content of each item must be mutually exclusive. A sentence from the passage should contain only one error, and should be used only for one item in a set.
2. "Syntax" has to do with grammatical rules; "diction" has to do with the writer's choice of words.
3. An item should clearly target only one type of error, and should not mix types of errors. For example, a punctuation item shouldn't include distractors that contain errors in verb tense.

More previously discussed here.

As an aside, it's interesting how you can learn a lot about a person by reviewing his or her work, and how this body of knowledge grows over time. It's like how my mechanic told me that he knows more about his customers from the condition of their cars than he does from talking with them. He can tell who drives erratically, who slams on the brakes, who grinds the gears, and he can tell who doesn't. Everything is everything. You can develop a similar personality profile simply by reviewing a writer's work.

I can't tell you how many times I've finished working on a manuscript, items or reading passage, don't make no difference, and felt a deep and tender affection for the writer because his or her work demonstrated care, attention, and conscientiousness. 

UPDATE: Forgot to mention. I started writing about all this because I saw this book mentioned in the Common Core Standards and immediately ordered it. 


  1. I am both fascinated and saddened. I thank you, again, for your insights into the testing industry. It troubles me that as we are using tests more and for more dire purposes, the testing companies are cutting training and quality support. I'm sure it all comes down to money. Schools undergo budget cuts. Schools are required to test more. Schools look for the cheapest choices. Companies cut corners to undercut their competitors. Yikes. It all becomes so ugly.

    On the other hand, I am probably going to check out the Artful Sentence. I've been reading Tested. It's a worthwhile examination, but I find I can only get in about a chapter a week if I want to keep my anger in check. A book like the Artful Sentence could be a nice antidote: A good study of successful sentences. I don't know how much will apply to my 4th and 5th graders, but at least it will be interesting to me!

  2. When I get disheartened, I have to dial it back to a very small scale--one sentence at a time, one test question at a time, one reading passage at a time.