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Righting the Writing Tests

September 24, 2012 | Katie

According to Donna Krache’s recent CNN article, the National Assessment of Educational Progress reveals a gender gap.  Eighth to twelfth-grade girls are scoring better on writing tests than their male counterparts. But not in a way that is, to me, either substantial or encouraging: eighth-grade girls averaged 160 while the eighth-grade boys averaged 150; twelfth-grade girls averaged 157 and twelfth-grade boys averaged 143. The difference is small, but what is more difficult to overlook is the fact that these scores, all around 150, are out of 300. Perhaps I should be glad that everyone is around the mean instead of farther below it.

Of course I want equality for everyone, but what is the best way of encouraging it? Is it through equality of outcome, or equality of opportunity? It is difficult to force anyone to learn, and some comments on the article suggest that the reason why boys are worse writers is because the books read in class are largely centered on females – too much of the feathery femininity of Austen and Awakening, not enough of the violence and vulgarity of Shakespeare and Sherlock Holmes.

The truth of this statement has not been tested, but it does seem sensible that willing readers might be better writers, because they have been exposed to a larger vocabulary range and have become familiarized with grammatical structures. But if schools do have a broad and balanced selection of literature, what accounts for the difference?

To me, the difference between scores does not seem large enough to cause worry – but I’m not a statistician. Another reason why I’m not overly concerned is that the writing ability of an eighth-grader, or even a tenth-grader, might not be indicative of their ability to succeed in life. “Success” is pretty broad and often misinterpreted, but let’s say we’re talking about vocational security.

Writing skills come in handy for college admissions essays, but for a mechanical engineer for whom papers are few and far between, scoring three points better than his female classmate on a writing exam is probably not too worrisome. I’ll be the first to proclaim the importance of writing well, but that’s probably because I am easily annoyed by the confusion of “you’re” and “your.”

And since there have been far more articles about how English majors are nowhere near as likely to get jobs as engineers, people are focused more on getting rich than being enriched. And those engineers, by the way, aren’t just men, just as not all English majors are women, contrary to popular belief. “We happy few” will take everyone we can get.

I think the most important thing is that people passionately pursue their interests and talents. Compulsory education encouraging graduates to be well-rounded is a noble endeavor, truly. As for its success, I’m not entirely certain.  I’m less convinced that the school system is steering kids in a certain direction than I am that they are doing best at subjects they already inherently love. As we are in a time of unprecedented innovation in multiple fields of study, I am pretty well assured that something is going right. So keep learning, keep innovating, and keep it classy.

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