If indeed I have, as I like to brag (we take our pleasures where we find them), millions and millions of readers, then why am I not famous? And if not famous, at least why isn’t my name fairly well known among K-12 students and their teachers? This interesting question isn’t really about me, though; it’s about the mystery of missing bylines in standardized tests and in educational assessment in toto.
If you’re a teacher or student, or if you’ve ever had the opportunity to review a reading test, you may wonder what up about the missing bylines in standardized tests. It seems strange, doesn’t it, when writers aren’t credited for their work?
A general answer to the latter is that we don’t know these writers’ names because the industry as a whole is mixed up about bylines. There’s no standard method of dealing with attribution. Companies follow their own inclinations. Or they institute a policy based on outdated notions or they decide that from now on, they are going to do [whatever they are going to do] as a reaction to getting in trouble that one time. Many test publishing company policies are direct outcomes of incidents in which they got in trouble. Pineapple, anyone? Because if there is anything that higher-ups at test publishing companies hate, it’s getting into trouble. The only thing they hate more than getting into trouble is getting into trouble publicly. They do not subscribe to the view that any publicity is good publicity. Because the industry is all about
secrecy hush-hush being on the QT keeping on the D low confidentiality and security.
Also–and I really don’t understand why this is–this industry seems to host a high proportion of people who, even far along into their adulthood, fear getting into trouble: people who never seemed to read the memo that once we’re adults, we really can’t get into trouble anymore; we might commit a crime, get arrested, submit to a trial, be determined guilty or not guilty, and go to jail; we might be warned, reprimanded, and even demoted at work; we might do or say something stupid or thoughtless (um, not naming any names, Me) and then have to apologize or otherwise mop up whatever mess we make, but the single greatest thing in the world about being an adult is that we don’t get in trouble anymore, because we never again have to be in the position of being completely powerless the way we were as children. Instead, we make choices and we live with the consequences. Can I get an amen?
Back to bylines. Whether a given company includes bylines may or may not indicate something about the company–by which I mean that often the actions we take reveal some aspect of our character. If a company chooses not to give writers credit for their work, it may suggest how shallow is the regard that company feels for writers. However. We can’t make that assumption solely on that tiny bit of data; it might very well be that the company’s policy is like the story of somebody’s grandma and cutting the ends off the ham: the no-byline policy is just how everyone’s always done it, and no one has ever questioned the practice to discover that grandma cut the ends off because the ham didn’t fit into her baking pan and that bylines were once omitted on a long passage because the extra line made the passage seep onto the next page. One never knows the real reason until one asks (and sometimes not even then).
Some test publishing companies include bylines as a matter of course, even for work-for-hire, but this is most excellent practice is the rara avis. I soundly and vigorously applaud these companies.
Most common are the companies that include bylines only for writing for which there is a copyright and for which the companies must obtain reprint permission, but that do not include bylines for work-for-hire; and some companies have the unusual policy of omitting bylines altogether and letting the copyright lines do the talking in fine print somewhere in the test book, not necessarily even on the same page as the passage. These are not most excellent practices.
The mystery of why test publishing companies strip bylines from reading passages on standardized tests is not much of a mystery. Maybe that one time the passage really did wander onto the next page when the editor added the byline, so the editor took it off in order to keep a two-page spread. Or maybe some harried editor once omitted a byline accidentally, and then monkey see, monkey do until it became common practice. Or it may be that the folks at test publishing companies worry that bylines will muddy the waters as to who owns the legal rights to the works, although this latter seems silly in light of the contracts we sign that clearly state the writing is work-for-hire and therefore no longer belongs to us no how, no way, not at all, no siree Bob.
Another possible explanation is that the pool of writers who produce the text in reading tests is very, very small, tiny, infinitesimal. I used to think that we passage writers numbered in the hundreds, but I think this no longer. My guess is that far fewer than a hundred writers are responsible for writing the text that appears in all reading tests published in the United States. The number might even be less than fifty. Why do I guess this? This test publishing industry is a small world, one that is barricaded to outsiders. We most of us know of or have heard of each other. I’ve been doing this work for twenty years, and I don’t know nor have I heard of more than a few dozen names of passage writers. Even if the number of passage writers for all reading tests published in the United States is as much as a hundred (which I very much doubt), each company tends to rely on a small, select group of freelance writers, which means that all of the passages for any one assessment product may have been written by any one of a half-dozen to a dozen writers. Maybe slightly more. Still, as I said, it’s a small pool. So test publishing companies, who hate to call attention to themselves for any reason, certainly don’t want to call anyone’s attention to the fact that one writer may have written 25% of the passages on a given reading test. While I think the clear solution to this problem is to diversify and hire more writers, the solution that test publishers implement is secrecy. If there are no bylines, there are no clues that there is anything wrong, and then no one is the wiser, and then the test publishing company will never have to squirm and wriggle in response to that uncomfortable question of how come there are 120 passages in this product (across all grade levels), but all of these passages were written by only 10 writers. (I will address this matter more fully in another post. I have many, many thoughts about this problem and about possible solutions. This isn’t just for the fun of blaming. And there are folks, usually line staff, at many test publishing companies who dedicate themselves heart and soul to making tests better, so I’d like to help them do that by offering specific possible solutions.)
However the practice of omitting bylines came about, I think we can all agree that it is a mistake. Giving credit (or blame) where credit (or blame) is due can only be a good thing, and in the matter of text, and specifically, the text of reading passages on tests, the person who deserves credit (or blame) in the form of a byline is the writer. Bylines help us live in the best of all possible worlds; bylines both acknowledge the creative effort of the writer and hold the writer accountable. Bylines help prevent the problem of writers submitting work that really shouldn’t be published. When writers know their names are attached, they’ll submit better work. Anonymity is a shield for mediocrity. As a writer, I want my name on my work. I work hard, I do a good job, I want people to know that the writing is mine. (Not that I’m immune to writerly dissatisfaction with my work. I look back at earlier pieces and I wish I could
eliminate them from the face of the Earth rewrite them. When we know better, we do better.)
Also, we certainly believe that bylines are important and that students should learn to identify the author of a text, because we specify that as a skill that kindergarteners should master. How can students identify the author when we present them with author-free text? Funny how we require kids to do something, and then take away the only means that will allow them to do that very thing.
Even worse is the message we send by presenting this text of indeterminate origin: that the text is inauthentic, misbegotten, and creatorless, that it sprang from the innards of a soulless corporation, or that it was penned anonymously by a writer too ashamed of his poor efforts to put his name to the product of his imagination. I can’t tell you how many people have told me they always sort of believed that standardized tests were somehow computer generated. Sigh. The sigh isn’t for this mistake; it’s for the industry that makes this mistake possible. If only the people who run this industry understood that transparency is good and builds trust, while secrecy inevitably gives birth to suspicion and doubt.
Some editors remove bylines because they have a low opinion of commissioned text–unfortunately, my friend and colleague Frank and I have encountered this very attitude. Unfortunately, by speaking and acting in a manner that is disrespectful to writers, they are only kicking quality to a lower rung and perpetuating the cycle. And also? Why are they hiring writers of whose work they have such a low opinion? There are plenty of great writers in the world who would love to make some money from their writing.
These editors are right in that many of the commissioned passages on reading tests are regrettably of noticeably lower quality than previously published materials. But this is disgraceful; it’s not a condition we should greet with a shrug and a swipe of the pen in a delete swirl. As a writer in this industry, I am appalled that so many other writers in this industry have never published their writing in any arena other than K-12 reading tests, for the reason that their writing is not good enough for publication. At all. Anywhere. Not ever. Never. If a writer has never published his or her work in any arena other than test publishing, that writer’s work does not belong in tests.
And yet, the test publishers buy these unpublishable works, which are then used to test reading comprehension. Shouldn’t we use literature that is the best of the best when we are testing kids on reading comprehension? Or at least literature that is good, and that has all of the elements of good writing?
Is the problem then that most commissioned writing on reading tests is bad and doesn’t deserve bylines? Maybe. If that’s true, the solution is simple: hire better writers. Follow the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test 2.0 Test Item Specifications:
The contractor is responsible for identifying a team of commissioned reading text authors. These authors should have been previously published in a critically reviewed publication, such as Smithsonian, Crickets, Highlights, etc., and must have their resumés approved by the DOE. Resumés should include detailed information about authors’ publications, samples of their work, and where other samples can be found. The contractor must submit examples of prospective authors’ works as the examples appear in publications with their names in the bylines (or copyright statements).
If these guidelines were followed by all test publishers, most of the writers for reading tests would be out of passage-writing work.
I know very few passage writers who meet the FCAT requirements–maybe five or six? The ones that I know of who meet those requirements are great writers. Some have published in literary journals; others have won awards for their writing. One has written in several different arenas and media.
I also meet those requirements; I’ve published my writing in “critically reviewed” publications. I also write commissioned passages. Once I wrote so many passages for one company’s shelf product that the editors asked me to come up with a handful of pseudonyms–it looked bad, they said, to have one writer’s name on so many passages in the same test. For a few years, I stopped writing commissioned passages altogether, partly because I had taken offense to the prevailing attitude that commissioned writing must be bad writing, partly because the pay rate has been on a downward trajectory (some companies are paying as little as $100 for a 500-1000 word passage that may require substantial research), and partly because I’d rather own the rights to my work and then give reprint permission. But I do love to write, so I still do commissioned work for select clients because it’s fun and because the clients are likable and it’s a pleasure to write for people who appreciate one’s work.
And what about kids who are used to seeing bylines in books, magazines, and newspapers. What message do we send by publishing stories, poems, and articles without bylines? Whether we intend to or not, we make these texts in tests seem alien, disconnected from life and reality, unlike anything that might be the creation of a real writer. The lack of a byline is a dead giveaway that this is fake text, and therefore not worth paying attention to. One complaint people make about tests is that no one knows who writes them. Let’s address that complaint, at least for the passages. Let’s hire real writers to write the reading passages, and let’s hire more of them.
Writers should have bylines wherever they publish their work.
Here’s to making the world a better place, one byline at a time.
P.S. And file this under Good to Know–I came across this vintage EdWeek article by Alfie Kohn on testing. Everything still applies. We have an obligation to think about what we’re doing and what the possible outcomes might be. It’s not fun to think about, but it’s necessary.