Grading the ELA
Filed under: New Teacher Diaries by miss brave @ 2:53 pm
[Editor’s note: miss brave is the pseudonym for a second-year elementary school teacher in Queens. She blogs at miss brave teaches nyc, where this post originally appeared on Sunday, Feb. 1]
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.