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Cursing Cursive

February 26, 2014

Smarter Balanced: Cursing Cursive

The Smarter Balanced Assessment is scheduled to be administered in South Dakota this spring. Need I say: it is Common Core aligned.

Although I have not intended this blog to be political, this is such a deep issue for us as mothers, that I would like to take the time to go over a question from the sample test, by way of showing what is at stake in this or any other test, and what kinds of things are going on.

First, by way of disclaimer, the question I am going to present is not actually on the assessment. The company offers it as an example; obviously the real questions are not for publication. Ever. On the other hand, the sample test is probably quite close to the real one in spirit; I have seen these things before, the sample and then the one my kids took.

The topic of this question, a test question intended for 3rd graders, is cursive handwriting and the implicit message is that it is a waste of time. Already, there are four things wrong:

  1. Taking a test is, for most people, stressful. That means that they are somewhat suggestible. This is simply a fact of life; it cannot be changed except by making them angry. Therefore, it is not appropriate to make any political or curriculum suggestions to anyone in the context of a test; to do so is the impulse of brainwashing. To do so for 3rd graders is a severe abuse of the privilege of testing them.
  2. What does a third grader know about what is valuable or not in a curriculum? And by the way, cursive handwriting is not the only casualty here. Its value is compared only with math and science, period. History, poetry, literature? None of these are on the table. It’s only “math and science” (worthwhile) vs. cursive handwriting (useless.) Let us all bow down to the god of math and science curriculum while we begin to implement the worst one we can find, the very worst. Guess what? Doing cursive writing would be better.
  3. Actually, brain research shows that there is a close relationship between the hands and the development of language. Any decision not to develop a fine-motor skill is potentially serious for the development of language, and to undertake such a change without a research base is a serious matter. Oh, I know lots of clever people with bad handwriting; most people who see a doctor know at least one. But they can write; they do write, even if not so often. Maybe before their signatures became a hasty formality, they even wrote well, who knows?
  4. Handwriting is also an expression of the total person. A graphologist can tell you an uncanny lot about yourself if you let her have a sample of your writing, and before you dismiss that, let me put it in a suitably multicultural context: The Chinese have a saying, “Your characters reveal your character.” The pun is the same in Chinese as in English. People who print by choice are hiding, emotionally. That’s fine; there are good reasons to hide. But can it be wise to make it school policy not to express yourself in this simplest of ways? Wouldn’t it be wiser to improve handwriting as a way to access your best self?

So I am very irritated about this issue, but enough of that! You are doubtless wondering: What is the question on the test? It is rather long, but here it is:

The Cursive Question

A student is writing an opinion essay for his teacher about cursive writing. The student wants to revise the draft to include more supporting reasons. Read a paragraph from the essay and complete the task that follows.

“Furthermore, there isn’t enough time in a school day for learning unimportant subjects such as cursive writing. I don’t think cursive writing is as important as math or science. Everyone is talking about how American students need to improve their math and science skills. We have to take tests to show what we have learned in those subjects. No one ever tell us we need to improve our cursive writing so that we can get into college or get a job. Let us spend our school day on things that are important. Cursive writing is not something we would use as an adult.

My notes on cursive writing:

* not something to use later in life

* don’t’ have enough time in school day

* unimportant

* not tested on it

Choose two sentences from the student’s notes that add the best reasons after the underlines sentence to support the writer’ opinion about cursive writing.

  • Cursive writing is faster than printing.
  • People use cursive to write their signatures.
  • Learning to print is more difficult for students.
  • Students need to be able to read cursive writing.
  • Not that many people use cursive when they are adults.
  • Most job applications ask people to print their information.

 Minor Critique

First of all, a minor point of grammar should be noted because these tests are always written by illiterates.

The underlined sentence should be,  “Cursive writing is not something we would use as an adults.” Or “Cursive writing is not something we anyone would use as an adult. Since the sentence speaks of what “we” would use, the noun should be plural. Alternatively, the word “we” could be replaced with a singular pronoun, such as “anyone.”

Everyone makes mistakes; I understand that. But this is a test. Supposedly an English test! Doesn’t anyone proof this stuff?

Second minor point: What’s all this whining about what “people are saying?” Is curriculum composition supposed to be based on newspaper polls?

Third point: job applications are not the formative issue for 3rd graders and it is abusive to make suggestive warnings about them. Yes, this is a suggestion to the 3rd grader that, while he is stressed about this test, he should really be concerned about how to complete his job application. Come on!

Fourth: too long.

Down to Business, serious critique

There are six options for the completing sentences. The first four are reasons for learning cursive. (Not terribly serious reasons, but reasons.) Obviously the only options are the last two. In that sense, the question is very simple and the answer is not subjective or ambiguous.

Remember, however, that this is a stressful situation and these are third graders. They have been asked to find the “best” reasons for something that doesn’t much concern them, and when they are presented with four non-reasons in a row, they will be feeling anxious about which is “best” before they realize that they are all irrelevant. They were told they were to make a judgment. I admit I myself went back to re-read the assignment when I got to #3 and still didn’t have a good reason or even a bad one. I thought I must have missed something.

Again: this is a test. The kids are under stress. Wouldn’t it be reasonable to make #2 or #3 one of the “best” reasons?

And since the students are supposed to pick the  “best” reasons for taking cursive out of the curriculum, wouldn’t it make sense to offer a poor reason for them to pass over?

“Some people’s cursive writing is hard to read.” (The child could say: So what? Not a best answer.)

“Older folks have too many loops in their writing.” (At least this is on topic. Another one for the student to skip over.)

This kind of construction is confusing for the student. There is no “best.” There are four anti-reasons and then two reasons, best or not. Why should a test be mis-directed like this? What are we testing for? Either the authors of the test are incredibly stupid and myopic or they are after something else.

Since the test is not useful for the teachers but is only an information-gathering exercise for the feds, one has an uncomfortable feeling about this. Perhaps the real assessment includes a question that is indeed, not about English, but about gauging where the culture is on some sort of progressive issue. Maybe it won’t be about cutting out cursive writing, but about cutting something else that’s not for 3rd graders to judge, but where 3rd graders will inadvertently show where their parents stand. They will do this because they will check what is on their mind as a relevant point, instead of what finishes an essay that does not concern them.

Why should the children learn the Krebs Cycle? When was the last time you had an employer asking about that? What about the Pledge of Allegiance? Do they ever get tested on that?

We may never know what this is about, because the assessment is only on the computer, only seen by the students who take it and maybe by the proctors who supervise them.

Is that really appropriate?

When my daughters were in ballet, some several years ago, their teacher was French. She showed me the test her daughter took in high school – the English test. The interesting thing was that nine cities in France gave these tests, and gave them twice a year, and published the test and the answers three months afterwards. Eighteen times a year, the French could write an English test.


It’s not such a big deal to write a test, and a little sunshine would keep the questions honest. Instead, we have this cult of secrecy where all sorts of garbage goes unchallenged because nobody is allowed to see or speak of the test.

It’s time to say, “Show me!”

Or just, “No!”

2 Comments leave one →
  1. ProLIFEmommy permalink
    February 26, 2014 2:19 pm

    †JMJ† What a joy it was to see this post written by Mary Daly! I absolutely LOVE her… her science materials & her Diagramming book!! What a gift she is to our homeschool community. This “Common Core,” thing is so ambiguous (just like Obamacare and anything, frankly, that this administration puts forth). The more I learn, the more I see just how the herd mentality operates! Thank you, Holly. And thank you, Ms. Daly, for taking the time to educate us… for being the sunshine in the darkness of this world!! God Bless!

  2. ProLIFEmommy permalink
    February 26, 2014 3:11 pm

    Silly me! I confused this blog with Holly Pierlot’s blog, thinking she had Ms. Daly as a guest writer on her blog!! I guess I need another cup of coffee..or–more sleep! Both the former & the latter would be great, but with a newborn and a potty-training a toddler, the former seems much more easily attainable. 😉

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