April 5, 2008

They Say We Can't Write

Sometimes I think it would be so much nicer to be a math teacher than an English teacher. Aren't the concepts in math pretty linear? Cut and dried? Black and white? Start on page one of the textbook and go from there? Of course the grass is always greener, especially since the dismal results of a district-wide algebra test came out in the RJ. Okay, nevermind. I'll stick with English.

We 8th grade English teachers at my school have our own dismal news, as we received the scores from the state writing proficiency exam on Thursday. We're at that year in NCLB where we need to have this impossible percentage of students who are proficient, and instead of raising our numbers, we slid back 5%. My students did worse than students I had last year--20% fewer passed the exam. I know. Screams and tears of frustration. Seriously.

Our administrator wants to us to meet ASAP and come up with some ideas and solutions. Our department--not just 8th grade teachers--stepped up our game this year. As you can imagine, to find ourselves in a worse position after taking more training and collaborating more with each other, is a slap in the face. And now we need to meet? I don't know what to say. Teaching writing is is not formulaic. Of course, there are best practices and techniques we can use to grow wonderful writers, but darn if it doesn't seem like those ideas clash with teaching to the writing test. Imagine that.

In a perfect world I see my students being able to express themselves in many situations. They can switch between modes of writing and find success. They can write a poem one day, a persuasive essay another day--and then a constricting state-mandated essay another day.

It really doesn't sound hard, right? Who are we kidding? Writing is hard work. It's more than constructing sentences, spelling words correctly, and knowing where commas should go. It's also having the ability pour your heart and mind on paper. Is there an educational bandage for that?

Of course not.

But let's throw another confusing element in this mess:
  • About ten of my best writers barely passed the writing test.
  • Several of my consistently average students didn't pass by a 1/2 point. Arg!
  • Three of my average-struggles-with-English students, who I thought could be borderline, earned very high scores.
  • The rebel kid, who proudly told another teacher how he got around addressing the topic, who I was sure would receive a 0 for not addressing the writing topic, ended up also receiving an above average score.
Although I've read and studied the student writing samples w/ scores that the state has released (and my students also had some activities evaluating these samples), and I attended a training conducted by a state scorer who revealed some insights about scoring, I am confounded over some of the scores my students earned.

Yea...It's not cut and dried and at all. And what do I plan to do about these scores? What went wrong? I certainly don't want to walk into a meeting Monday afternoon, where my administrator expects me to be a leader, and say, "I dunno."

So, I'm saying it here. I dunno.

I'll be taking the position that this year our entire department banded together to build better writers and prepare students for this big test. We have some great tools in our toolboxes now, and I think we should simply carry on with what we started this year. In this NCLB era, we all want the quick fixes, but there aren't any quick fixes--especially in the craft of writing.

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