This Modern Writer: How to Write a Reading Passage for a Standardized Test by Kathryn Houghton

After graduating with my MFA in fiction this past June, after working two years on the management staff of Willow Springs, I figured I had a bright future ahead of me. I applied for jobs at presses and literary journals, but nothing stuck. Four months later, with my bank account nearly empty and my student loan payments looming, I found myself accepting a job writing and editing reading passages for standardized tests in the State of Michigan. At the interview, they asked if I’d ever written for children before and I said, “No, but I’d like to some day.” They nodded and I was hired. I soon found out that wanting to write for children has very little in common with writing passages for standardized tests, though they keep swearing to me that it does. Here is the process I go through while writing each new passage for students in grades 3 through 9. You be the judge.

Step 1: Select a topic.

If you are feeling lazy, you can take this topic from the pre-approved list given to you when you first started writing passages. If not, use the random article search option on Wikipedia until piques your curiosity. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can come up with your own topic, but this is dangerous, and often leads to topics that fall under the umbrella of Stuff Adults Think Kids Find Interesting. If you thought up an idea in under five minutes, chances are that kids have read it a hundred times before.

Step 2: Get the topic approved.

Even if you took the topic from the pre-approved list, double check to make sure it is still okay. Sometimes they forget to take things off the list, or they’ve changed their minds. If the topic was not on the list, you need to make sure no part of your selected topic is, in any way, shape, form, or stretch of the imagination, on the taboo topics list.

Note: Taboo topics include the obvious (abortion, death, guns) and the not-so-obvious (dollhouses, skiing, camping, pork, cheeseburgers). Some topics are okay in some circumstances but not in others (stories set in wartime, which feature the good guys, can have guns, if no one fires them; actually, probably even picking them up is bad).

Step 3: Write your story or informational passage.

This is the fun part because you’ve already got the restrictions. Here you just get to write. A word of warning however: If you are, say, writing a novel for grownups in your non-work hours, you may have to be extra vigilant in making sure that there is no leakage from your more mature project into this one or difficulties may arise in the next step.

Step 4: Run the word count and Flesch-Kincaid grade-level check.

Both of these options are available in Microsoft Word, though the grade level check may not be on by default. Enter the information at the bottom of your passage for reference. If you were writing with a specific grade-level goal in mind, see how both the word count and grade level match up. If you didn’t have a grade level in mind, now is a good time to select one.

Note: This almost never works out on the first draft. Without fail you will have to cut from your piece and/or lower the grade level. Or maybe that’s just me.

Step 5: Revise the piece to make everything match up.

Or, rather, revise the piece to try to make everything match up. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try, you just can’t get that grade level to drop below 6th because it hurts your writerly sensibility to dumb down those sentences any more.

Note: The grade-level indicator built in to Microsoft Word hardly seems the most scientific. Try fooling it by adding or subtracting syllables from character names, or by running it once without quotation marks around dialogue. I’ll let you discover the other ways of manipulating your results.

Step 6: Get the final piece approved by the content specialist.

The content specialist is the reading know-it-all, but don’t be afraid to say, “No. Your proposed edits hurt me inside.” Of course, the know-it-all will still get any edit he or she wants, but at least you will have stood your ground, and when your teacher friends make any complaint about the test, ever, you can assume it is about THIS and say, quite honestly, that it isn’t your fault.

Kathryn Houghton holds an MFA in fiction from Eastern Washington University. She writes book reviews for The Collagist and blogs weekly at the Willow Springs blog, Bark.