Thursday, April 24, 2008

In The Eye of the Be-reader

Today I was mandated to give my class the HLAT (Highest Level of Achievement), a "standardized" measure of their writing performance and achievement relative to grade level. The students were given a written prompt and asked to write for 45 minutes in response to this prompt.

Then, my colleagues and I had the daunting task of rating these compositions for a variety of attributes that determined the student's performance on the writing. We were also asked to rank students on a rating scale of achievement, from limited to adequate to proficient to achievement.

As I assessed these compositions, some of them I found to be easy to categorize; they either blew me out of the water with their depth of content or incredible writing style, or they were so poorly composed that they absolutely underwhelmed me. Then there were the writings that fell into the middle - were they proficient or adequate? I had exemplars before me to compare them to, as well as a thorough description of the qualities that belonged to each of the two categories. Armed with these resources, it was still a challenging task to try to determine where some of the writings fit - particularly those that sort of fell in the middle between the two levels of achievement.

The process reminded me of my own experiences in high school English. My AP English 10 and 30 teacher was a European lady who seemed to derive great pleasure from my writing; it appeared that she appreciated my excesses in figurative speech, the general flow of my sentences, and the opinionated uniqueness of my written "voice." Some of my work even made its way into this teacher's "exemplars" file, which I discovered from my sister during her stint in English 10. My teacher's name was Mrs. Fraser, and God bless her, she always gave me an exemplary mark (perhaps even when I didn't deserve it), and that did a lot to bolster my confidence in my writing abilities.

Contrast those years with my experience in English 20 AP; my teacher was a fiery redhead whom everyone speculated to be a witch. Wiccan practices or no, this woman hated my compositions. She thought I was too wordy and redundant, and that it was her duty as my teacher to instruct me in the ways of concise writing by giving me embarrassingly low grades until such time that I learned to shorten my essays. I didn't do very well that year; I also had little confidence in my compositional abilities; had I lost my superpowers as a creative writer?

And now I find myself the teacher, with the power to shatter confidence or to build it in my own students. Though the HLAT assessments of proficient versus adequate seem inconsequential to me and to most educators accessing their files, I imagine that these results will weigh far more heavily in the hearts and minds of my still-impressionable young students. Will the mark of an 8-2 (adequate) cause them to question their writing talents? Will an 8-3 mark encourage these kids to keep expressing themselves confidently and freely in print? And will the students who receive an 8-1, those whose compositions are deemed limited relative to grade level expectations, simply throw their hands in the air and give up on the craft of writing altogether?

Though I realize I may be over-thinking the issue, it still troubles me to the core that original written compositions are subject to the interpretation of imperfect teachers with biases of their own. Despite having rubrics and rating scales and other criteria to help guide our marking, the truth is that at the end of the day, we are still fallible human beings whose preferences will taint the objectivity of our scoring. Perhaps we should simply avoid marking creative compositions on a holistic scale. Maybe we do need to reduce our measures further, examining just the grammar or the mechanics, the format or the strength of arguments, rather than judge an entire piece based on some general rubric that does little to help students figure out how they can truly improve the way that they express themselves on paper.

In any case, I am not a fan of the HLAT, and even less a fan of marking these. :(


Natalie said...

Standardized testing (particularly in regard to writing) is the pits. I do not envy your task.

Anonymous said...

Well, one is either part of the beast or one isn't...I have to agree with Gatto--a revolution is needed on this front as well.

tejanamama said...

Stop reading and stop scoring and post already! miss you ;)

Mrs. Loquacious said...

I am still grading. Won't be done until....July. :(

And the beast is more easily fought from outside the belly, but most of us are employed by said beast, and have been consumed by its practices, for better or worse.

Nat - I don't envy my task either. At least the reading HLAT (multiple guess) was easier to score, though one wonders how 28/58 can possibly constitute an "at grade level" reading performance. Such an imperfect measure!