Sunday, February 1, 2009

Grading the ELA

I haven't posted about school all week because I haven't been at school all week. Instead I've been at another school, on the other side of the borough, grading the state English Language Arts (ELA) exam for third, fourth and fifth graders.

It's difficult for even an experienced teacher-blogger like me to describe the disheartening disorganization and incompetence that's been a daily part of this experience. First of all, the entire thing seems to have been thrown together last-minute when it was decided that rather than pay teachers per-session to grade the exams after school and on weekends, each school would have to send a few teachers away from their regular assignments to grade the exams during the day. I missed a week at my school, but some teachers are grading the ELA for up to three weeks in a row, right up until February break. By the time we come back from vacation, they will have missed an entire month of school! Most of these are not classroom teachers, but still. At one point the site supervisor attempted to placate us by referring to us as the "cream of the crop," as if we had been selected by our principals because of our competence; we all laughed, because we knew that we had actually been selected because we're disposable.

In any case, the entire experience grew more ridiculous by the day. I don't know who was in charge or how it was supposed to be organized, because it seemed to us like the supervisors had very little idea how to run things. Like how about the fact they had one sign-in sheet for 200 people and expected all 200 of them to sign in and then sit down before they made announcements? Or the fact that they wanted us to count ourselves off by 24 in order to send us upstairs to rooms? Or the fact that every morning we practically played musical chairs as the supervisor said things like, "If today or tomorrow is your last day but you have not been trained on the fourth grade reading and writing, move to this side of the auditorium"?

And then there were the more serious transgressions, the ones that had us worried about the actual integrity of the test grades. If, for example, you were about to give a student a 2 on one section of the test and happened to notice that another grader had given the same student a 4 on another section (as 4 is the highest grade you can receive, this seems like a substantial discrepancy), and you voiced your concern, you were told to (exact words) "MYOB." (Listen, lady, I'm not being a nosy parker here, this is my first time grading a very important state exam and I just want to make sure everything is copacetic.) If you and all the other graders at your table happened to notice that the essay appeared to be written in two very different handwritings, as if it sure looked like the teacher had made a few changes, and you voiced your concerns, your objections were dismissed. I don't know what teachers at other grading sites experienced, but I have to say that I was treated with less respect than I typically try to treat my second graders, and that had me worried for the validity of the scoring.

My fellow graders and I did our best to be thorough. We frequently passed tests around the table to get a second opinion, and for those essays we were truly on the fence about, we had spirited discussions and consulted our rubrics frequently before committing to a final grade. When grading the editing passages, in which students have to correct grammatical errors, I always counted twice to make sure I was grading correctly. But we were only one room, and who knows what was going on in the other rooms at the other grading sites? Some schools sent intermediate and junior high school teachers to grade third graders' exams, and some of those teachers had to be gently reminded that they were dealing with the writing of eight-year-olds, not teenagers. Some graders seemed to be handing out 4s to nearly every essay, while others seemed to be unwilling to give the students the benefit of the doubt. Despite our supervisors' best efforts to get everyone on the same page of the same rubric, grading the ELA, I learned, is frighteningly subjective. The exams we graded, for example, all came from districts outside our own -- districts that tend to be high-scoring. I teach a population of mostly ELLs in a low-scoring district, so I was pretty impressed by the work that I read -- until I thought about teachers who are used to teaching high-scoring kids in other districts who would be reading the exams from my district and wondering what the kids could possibly be thinking.

I don't want to accuse the ELA graders of incompetence, or cheating, or messing with the exam results, or even incomplete or invalid training of the graders. All I want to do is point out that my own experience grading the ELA was less than positive because of the overall disorganization of the process. It set a tone that was unfortunate, given the vital work we were doing. And that vital work was what I tried to remind myself of each time I opened a new test booklet and faced the determined, sprawling handwriting of a new student trying to make himself understood.


17 (really 15) more years said...

It is, sadly, very subjective. I will tell you this: last year, a majority of our 7th graders scored a level 3. I can tell you that many of them can barely write a coherent sentence. Many have non-existent spelling and grammar skills. And inferencing? They wouldn't know an inference if they tripped over it. I'm not shocked by your experience at all.

ahnka said...

"It set a tone that was unfortunate, given the vital work we were doing. And that vital work was what I tried to remind myself of each time I opened a new test booklet and faced the determined, sprawling handwriting of a new student trying to make himself understood."

I feel you!
Today was my first day scoring and, uh... I knew it would be bad but I didn't know it would be goddamn awful. I was sitting at a particularly messed up table and I ended up consulting the facilitators for second opinions. I was amazed by the amount of confusion and disorganization. Scoring felt like punishment; my disdain for standardized assessments was cemented.

Anonymous said...

I am a parent of a student who tends to score low on the ELA (2 on the 4th and 6th grade tests) even though he does well in reading/writing in school. When he got his first 2 - the year of the infamous "Brownie the Cow" essay - we ordered the test to see whether we could figure out what happened - the grader gave his essay a "1" with no comments. His teacher and principal couldn't figure out why he got a 1 - it wasn't great literature but it certainly wasn't awful - and of course we couldn't appeal. So frustrating! It is really unfortunate that so much (middle and high school admissions) ride on these tests.

J said...

i figured it was bad, but i had no idea it was *that* stupid. what a not fun way to spend your week! way to go staying conscientious and thoughtful with the work, tedious though it may be.

i'm totally not surprised about the grades. i said every year that certain kids just ARE NOT that grade level, it would be impossible. from what i've heard from other scorers,t the scoring is usually not very tough on the kids, as in, something I would give a zero, a grader would give a two, because the kid wrote a sentence with a character's name in it, or something ridiculous like that.

the worst part is the concrete emphasis put on that end level. that no matter how valid the state grade is or isn't, that kid IS a two or a three or whatever. that their grades or ACTUAL ability to read, write, do math, THINK, etc, is not at all part of the equation. it's so pointless for so many people!

institutrice said...

Is this a state test? I don't understand why teachers are grading it and not specially trained raters.

Anonymous said...

I refuse to grade these tests anymore. Once, when grading during the 8th grade math, two women at my table were actually changing students answers, erasing or adding in necessary parts. I did not want to get these women fired, but did tell the room leader to watch the room for fishy business. didn't go back. and that's when we were being paid per session, two years ago.

Anonymous said...

AMEN, sister! Very WELL said, and as a 15-year veteran I couldn't have said it better myself. I am with you 100%. It's appalling and disgusting the way these so-called "scores" are valued so highly by department chairs and administrators to the point where they actually CHEAT and change/up scores that are already ridiculously generous. My department chair is younger and less experienced than me. Oh, also - she cannot spell or write a grammatical sentence. ;/

Anonymous said...

As a 20-year veteran, I am appauled at the assessment itself. What ever happened to vocabulary, analogies, comprehension, and penmanship? How can we have a viable score with a biased grading system?

Anonymous said...

I was also astonished at the disorganization and lack of experienced graders. Every person at my table besides one was a first time grader!

On the first day we were told to give credit for a specific answer, and on the next day we were told to re-grade exams and mark previously correct answers wrong. I cannot believe that these scores are held in such high regards. It is remarkable that there is not a better system set in place. My table attempted to give students the benefit of the doubt but when overhearing teachers discuss at nearby tables it was extremely disheartening! I just hope that someone is checking exams over and making sure that scores are accurate.

Anonymous said...

This June, we were only informed if our students met or did not meet promotional criteria. As I scanned the names of my third graders, I was surprised to see that one student did not pass. I assumed it could be a boy who I tried to refer for a very low reading level. I was shocked when it turned out to be a girl who was a good reader (not great but made it to a grade level DRA) and who scored okay on practice tests. No explanation, no chance to see her test so off she went to summer school. It is such a joke! Year after year, students whose papers looked perfect did not score a four while others on a first grade reading level pass the ELA! What is going on?