Writing Exam Preparation
My kids have the structure down for the general response. They know to discuss characters and analyze motivations in time-one, setting up further analysis in time-two, discuss conflict and find connections in their own life or other published work, outline the climax of the work and attempt to analyze the message. They can do all that, they can write clean sentences, (all but 2) bereft of run-ons, verb tense, or other syntactical errors... and they'll still be marked as Basic, or Below.
I am not an opponent of high-stakes testing per se, and I actually love data, love assessment, and do not fear the gut-check moment of can-they-do-what-you-taught, but I have my issues with this writing exam.
I don't like the fact that the level of required reading -- in the summary, in the response -- will skew my kids' scores downward. They may possess the mechanics, the organizational strategies, and ability to analyze, but if they lack the vocabulary and reading skills to fully understand the selection put in front of them, they will be unable to demonstrate their mastery of those skills. While writing intelligently about what one reads is obviously a critical academic skill, when evaluating writing in isolation, the assessment should be as context neutral as possible. If you want to test reading, do it, but if you want to assess their ability to write, take the roadblocks down.
My real issue though, is the lack of support given to English Language Learners (ELLs). Yes, they can write for an unlimited amount of time -- and my boy J. last year wrote until 5:30 to eek out his four paragraphs and then edit them -- but their work is thrown into the same mix, and thrown up against the same rubric as students with full English proficiency. I think ELLs should be held to the highest standards; I think no allowances should be made in terms of basic skills, or analytical process, or high-order thinking or anything else. I do think ELLs should be evaluated separately, on a separate rubric, one that allows for a lack of verbosity, slightly lowered vocabulary, and a lone spelling error. All too often, I've seen quality essays which meet all the expectations set forth on the various STAR web sites, and in fact exceed by accumulation of degree that released exemplars, I've seen these essays receive non-proficient grades. And it's wrong. I can only assume they suffer by comparison in the mind of evaluators -- I've heard rumors that recent grads compose the bulk of the graders -- with the fluent kids, those who can manipulate language, utilize idioms, creatively repeat because of ease of utilization and increased vocabulary.
When you consider how many native speakers are unable to cobble together fluid, ear-pleasing writing, it seems ludicrous in the extreme to punish -- and it is a punishment -- ELLs for the natural limitations brought about, not by their inability to organize thought and express it in written form, but rather for their inability to do so artistically and at a great length.