In “Proficiency,” one of the essays in The Norton Field Guide to Writing, Shannon Nichols chronicles her experience of failing the writing portion of the proficiency test that all Ohio high-school students must pass in order to receive their diplomas. Nichols’ literacy narrative offers a valuable example to students, demonstrating how even skillful writers fail. Her essay also speaks to different notions of what constitutes “good” writing, though perhaps in ways that neither Nichols nor the textbook writers intended.
Notably, the last sentence of Nichols’ introductory paragraph isn’t a sentence; it’s a fragment. While fragments can be used to great effect, the presence of one in Nichols’ introduction prompts readers to question whether Nichols was consciously taking a liberty or was instead unaware that her paragraph ended with an incomplete grammatical construction. If she was purposely defying convention, did it not occur to her that taking such a liberty on a standardized test could be the reason for her failure?
In addition to the sentence fragment in her introduction, Nichols presents a fragment of conversation that raises questions in readers’ minds. After she recounts failing the writing portion of the test for the second time, she recalls turning to her English teacher for an answer. She asks Mrs. Brown: “How can I get A’s in all my English classes but fail the writing part of the proficiency test twice?” (82). The next sentence that Nichols writes is simply this: “She couldn’t answer my question” (82). What does Nichols mean by that? It seems unlikely that Mrs. Brown literally had no answer for her. In the absence of Mrs. Brown’s answer, readers are left to wonder not only what the teacher said but also whether she missed a critical opportunity to talk with Nichols about purpose and audience.
Whether the scorers of the Ohio Proficiency Test are anonymous humans racing to meet a quota or robo-graders with an algorithm that identifies surface-level proficiency (including the absence of fragments), their aim differs radically from that of many writing teachers–perhaps Mrs. Brown among them–who strive to nurture their students’ ability to express themselves in meaningful ways.
Such teachers are philosophically opposed to “teaching to the test” for good reasons. But teaching the difference between what the test requires and the skills and habits of mind that truly make students college- and career-ready offers a lesson in compromise along with a study in contrasting rhetorical situations.
The textbook writers, themselves, note those contrasting rhetorical situations in the handbook section of The Norton Field Guide. In the chapter devoted to fragments, they write:
“[S]ome readers consider fragments too informal, and in many academic writing situations, it’s better to avoid them altogether” (Fig. 1 HB-7). Later in the same chapter, however, the textbook writers note that “[w]riters sometimes use [them] intentionally” (Fig. 2 HB-9). The first example they offer of an intentional fragment is the one in Nichols’ introduction, which the textbook writers label as intentional for emphasis:
Throughout my elementary and middle-school years, I was a strong student, always on the honor roll. I never had a GPA below 3.0. I was smart, and I knew it. That is, until I got the results of the proficiency test. (Fig. 2 HB-9)
The example of Nichols’ fragment as an intentional one appears in the textbook more than nine-hundred pages after her essay, itself, which increases the chances that students and instructors will not encounter both the fragment in context and the explanation for its use. If the textbook writers had opted not to include Nichols’ essay in Chapter 10 (“Writing a Literacy Narrative”) and instead placed it in Chapter 59 (“Literacy Narratives”), they could have addressed the fragment in one of the questions that follow each piece of writing in that section of the textbook. Seeing Nichols’ essay juxtaposed with the explanation for its fragment would invite classroom conversations about rhetorical situations, dialogues more nuanced than the fragments Nichols offers on the page.
Bullock, Richard, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. “Sentence Fragments.” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed. Norton, 2016, pp. HB-7 and HB-9-10.
Nichols, Shannon. “‘Proficiency.’” The Norton Field Guide to Writing with Readings and Handbook. 4th ed., by Richard Bullock, Maureen Daly Goggin, and Francine Weinberg. Norton, 2016, pp. 82-83.