Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Who Are "They"?

We got our test scores back today. Everyone passed and I'm fine and good with all of the scores, but! (there's always a but on this blog) I have a concern for the future of our educational system. And that's kind of a big concern to have.

I am all for testing within reason. I think testing has a very valid role in our schools. It keeps teachers accountable for teaching their curriculum and it keeps students accountable for learning it. I find testing to be motivating to me as a teacher because I am competitive and I like for my kids to be competitive with themselves. I prefer a test such as the EOG in North Carolina which measures students on their growth from year to year as well as how they pass the test, but still I am okay with testing. Except...

When testing children on writing, there is almost always a composition. After all, how do you know if a kid can write without them actually writing? We spend all year coaching the kids on good, quality writing. Not overusing dialogue, using figurative language only when appropriate and original, showing your personality in your writing without going overboard....our students can look at any paper and accurately tell you the score it deserves. They are trained scoring wizards and they enjoy it - it's a bizarre high they get when they nail a score, pure fist pumping joy.

I am dreading sharing their compositions and results with them tomorrow. Not because they did poorly, I was very proud of how they fared, but because of the inaccuracy of the scoring. The inaccuracies vacillate in both directions: overscored and underscored. I am equally appalled at both, but I am most disappointed in the well-written compositional wonders that were given lower scores than they deserved. My students are going to be able to look at their composition and know that their score is inaccurate. Then what do you tell them?

The students' writing is scored on a four point rubric. Generally, in layman's terms, a three is completing the task at grade level and meeting all the standards that are age appropriate. A four means that you went above and beyond and really wowed the scorers. A two signifies some gaps in development/mechanics/voice, etc. Of course, a one shows that you missed the boat. By a lot. It's pretty tough to get a one or a four.

I will give one example of the blasphemy that has befallen my school. These are two fourth grade excerpts from their writing tests, errors included:

1. "Mom I shouted "can we go cammping "Um...and kept beging with tears Will I guess so "Yah" as I jummped up and down with lot's of smiles. At camp green-lake we droped all are stuff down "oooooow" A-A-A I screched what was that I "replied" OK you wanted to came here So Don't be A chicken My big brother. No I'm Not - yes you Are. No I'm not. Yes you Are. "OK" who is ready to start the Day "Me "Swoosh" swoosh the wind blew my check's back "OH" no is that A Bean "uh" "Yah....I think so but, what if it chase's or step's on us. I took A deap breth and ran fast As I could. Soon Darknest came by but I kept runing that seem a Mile run faster he said I nervisly whisped A-A-A look the bear Do we do run faster...

2. Reluctantly, I summoned all my strength and leaped heavily across the river. When I landed on the other side, my bones made a loud popping noise, which I knew wasn't good. "Ouch!" I groaned as I got up to my feet and continued to trudge up the mountain. Finally, an hour later, my sister noticed something. "Look up!" she exclaimed. Slowly, I lifted my head up and saw nothing but the golden sun fading away into the distance. "What?" I inquired curiously when I realized we had reached the top of the mountain. I kissed the land that I was standing on. Below me, I could see acres of shimmering lakes and stretches of forest. Fields of clover swayed in the gentle breeze thousands of feet below me...

Both of these compositions were given a score of three. The first one should be a two, possibly a one, and the second one should be a four. What could the second child have done above that to achieve higher? And more importantly, HOW on this earth are those two samples even in the same ballpark? State? Universe? They are both precisely what we expected each of those children to write, but come ON!

My teammates and I spend seven months living and breathing writing to get these kids prepared for this challenge. How is it worth my time and the kids' efforts when the compositions are not even accurately assessed? We will be appealing several of the scores, but it boggles my mind that they struck out so poorly in the first place. They....this brings me to my next concern.

Who are they? I did a bit of poking around on the internet to try to find out exactly who they are and had very little luck. I did find some documents citing the extensive training which they go through, but then so do the teachers. The difference, I believe, is that teachers then go back to their classrooms and put into practice every day what they learned. They do not. They don't even have to have any classroom experience! They grade hundreds, if not thousands of essays a day! Don't you know that they are going to score something differently at 5:00 than they would at 9am?

Here's what I found out about them: they do have to have a bachelor's degree. In what? It doesn't matter. They also have to pass a proofreading test, one fifth of the scoring rubric, though they may have no concept of what a fourth, seventh or tenth grader should be expected to do mechanically in writing. They also have to write an essay. It is not mentioned whether or not they have to score one, but they are required to write one. Then they have practice with sets of papers. I am certain that there is a quality training process, but I cannot fathom how someone could think that the two samples I mentioned above are remotely in the same league.

Which brings us to my concern for the future of our educational system. My school's rating, my professional reputation and my students' pride in what they achieved this school year are in the hands of a couple of individuals - with bachelor's degrees in something - who have passed a proofreading test and written an essay. In the last few years, testing has become such a massive part of our educational system that a lot of other components are starting to get lost. I think that testing has a very necessary place, but I don't think that it should be so heavily weighted that about ten of my students are going to go home confused tomorrow. When what they thought they learned this year doesn't match up with their feedback from the state, what is going to motivate them to try that hard again in the future? What is going to give me any credibility with parents on the subject of scoring? Clearly, I must have been mistaken when I thought that student #1 needed some continuing tutoring and support in writing...what are parents to think? Those are Official Scores from the State.

So there I am. Confused and frustrated. Solely based on my assessment of their compositions, my students did better than they ever have before. They know I'm happy and proud, but they will get a mixed message when they get their official score. I am very happy that, yes, these kids can write the socks off of anything they are given, but I think there is something very wrong with our system when so much rides on this one test for them. And when this one test is scored by Joe Schmoe, B.A. who has never set foot in a classroom. I think the focus on genuine teaching is being replaced by aimless stabs at how the test might or might not be interpreted this year, and that is just sad.

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