Read ‘Em and Weep

The homegrown Writing Assessment I discussed in my last posting sought to peg students’ writing against grade-by-grade standards that we teachers felt we could reasonably expect students to meet. The standards started with those of the senior year, and the question we asked of each essay was Would this piece of writing be acceptable to a teacher of first-year students at a good U. S. university? From that standard down to the one governing 9th-grade writing was a series of plausible steps.

At each grade we divided the range of possible writing into six different levels. Any essay that got a 4 or higher met the standard for that grade. (Essays getting 5 were significantly better than what was required, and essays getting 6 were dazzling.) Graduating seniors getting 4 could expect not to be massacred in freshman comp; those getting 3s were in some danger if they didn’t work hard. A 3 therefore meant “not quite at the mark.”

Each essay received a grade of 1 to 6 (or 0 for an evasion or no response) from two teachers, so the total grade was from 0 (rarely given) to 12 (also rarely given).  The two teachers had to be within 1 mark of each other, a requirement not hard to impose. Our work as a department ensured that we would look at our students’ writing in more or less the same way: what does it do that good 12th-grade writing ought to do?

And what characterized a senior essay we rated a 4? The student engaged with the question asked, on the whole successfully and thoughtfully. There was a balance between generalization and detail. The writing was unified and generally coherent. The student had a reasonably good grip on grammar and syntax. There was no waffle or baloney. The writing did not cloy. The diction was suitable to formal circumstances. Spelling was generally good. Having the result graded twice helped ratify the choice of marks (most of our composite grades were in even numbers) or suggested slight deviations from standard.

It is in light of our standard for giving a 4 that I read a startling article this week in The New York Times, which also discussed essays receiving a 4/6—in this case on the New York State Regents’ test. A quoted example began, “In life, ‘no two people regard the world in exactly the same way,’ as J. W. von Goethe says. Everyone sees and reacts to things in different ways. Even though they may see the world in similar ways, no two people’s views will ever be exactly the same. This statement is true since everyone sees things through different viewpoints.”  Looked at using our standard, the extract shows no problems of grammar, syntax, or spelling; but then it sinks.  Where is the successful engagement with the question? The balance of generalization and detail? Saying essentially the same thing three times is waffle, and the question-begging in the last sentence shows thoughtlessness. Yet this essay received a 4 from the Regents. I kept asking myself what the writer would need to do to get a 2.

Even that question was not answered in the article, which also showed short-answer paragraphs scored as 0, 1, or 2. The following sentence opened a paragraph getting a 1, presumably something like a 3 on the 6-point scale: “In the poem, the poets use of language was very depth into it.” If this is the opening sentence of a middling paragraph, what would open a bad one? Here are two sentences from an essay that received a 3 from the Regents: “Even though their is no physical conflict withen each other. Their are jealousy problems between each other that each one wish could have.”

I can’t imagine what “standard” such writing in a 12th-grader “nearly” meets. There doesn’t seem to be much use in “standards-based” education with such standards, or “data-based” education with such data. The author of the Times article notes that 12th-grade writers like this actually stood a decent chance of achieving the 65 required to pass the Regents’ test. To hear that the Chancellor of the Board of Regents wants to raise the passing score to 75 is thus not very comforting. I kept wondering how I could “teach” students for twelve years and have them “reach” the point of such an “achievement.”


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