An English Teacher Doesn’t Do The Math: The Trouble With Assessment

It’s Friday and I’m not at work. It’s a furlough day, one of the 14 days cut from the school year in our district’s belt tightening regimen. I’ve got grading to do, but I’m not going to do it. Hell no. Instead, I’ll write about doing it. I want to conclude this part of my blog series about the difficulties of teaching English in a suburban public high school by talking about the king of all difficulties, the crowning glory of obfuscation and muddle, the most mysterious of mysteries regarding classroom practice, that is the problem of assessment. I know I’m doing it wrong. With the best of intentions, I think I’ve been doing it wrong for twenty years. Let me see if I clear this up. First of all, there is, has been all along, as far as I can tell, fundamental differences between what I DO and what I BELIEVE. Cognitive dissonance abounds on a massive scale with regards to measuring student achievement.

I give grades to students. I am expected to give grades to students; giving grades is, as far as I can tell, part of my job description. I hate grades and if I could abolish them, I would.

I believe students should be motivated because a thing is worth doing or knowing, not because some teacher is giving them ten points or a hundred points for an assignment. I give students an assignment and, while I try to communicate to them as clearly as I can why the assignment is worth doing for its own sake, I give them ten points or a hundred points for doing it.

I despise standardized tests, and yet, I routinely sacrifice a couple of weeks of instruction every year to administer these bad boys.

To wit: I know the only way students get better at reading and writing is by reading and writing. So I ask them to read and write. I think I should know what they’re reading and something about what they’re learning and thinking, so I ask them to write about their reading. Let’s say I get two pages a week from each kid about his or her reading—that’s about 360 pages of student work every week that I have to do something with. Then they’ve got to learn how to write by writing so I ask them to do some formal written work, say, a paper or two, between 3 and 10 pages—that’s potentially 1800 pages of student writing for each paper I assign. Let’s just pretend that in a good year I ask all of my students to do three or four formal pieces of writing in a year. Okay, I’m an English teacher—you do the math. It’s a hell of a lot of reading. I’m embarrassed to say it, but there’s a little bit of giddiness that bubbles up from deep inside me when they don’t all turn in their work. There’s something wrong with the picture when a teacher is made happy by the non-performance of a group of students.

My belief is, again, though, that if the work is worth doing, it’s worth doing, not because it’s worth ten points or a hundred points or because the kid will get a “good job” note or a gold star from the teacher, but for its own sake. I don’t even have to look at this stuff and there would still be value in the endeavor for a student, provided that the work is meaningful. But teachers, parents, administrators (and students too) are conditioned to believe or at least practice in such a way to suggest that no kid in his or her right mind would ever do an intellectual job because it was worth doing, without any kind of extrinsic reward for the doing of it at the end. I know it’s not true, but we all buy into this error and I sit several times a year at my desk buried in 1800 pages of the worst writing in the known universe. I don’t mean that as a disparagement, only a statement of fact. My students are, most of them, in varying degrees, beginners all. There are moments of sheer joy at reading competent or highly creative or immensely improved pieces of writing, but the tonnage of work I get from students reveals a dearth of these characteristics. Perhaps I would find more reasons to celebrate if I were not so heavily weighted down. Then, maybe I could look for the best stuff in even the worst work and that would likely be well worth it for all parties involved.

So how do I assess this mountain of stuff? By necessity and for survival and sanity, I do it quickly, so quickly, in fact, that in many cases, the end result, in terms of its value to a student as feedback, is so minimal as to make my intensive labor completely superfluous and ineffectual. Ouch. I can see my education professors wincing and squirming. I don’t blame them. I’m wincing and squirming myself. Why would you DO something you know to be ineffective? Well, here’s my quick response. The following is true: effective assessment, just like effective planning, takes time and careful consideration. And the realities of the public education work place are not conducive to these things. Zahir Wahab, a professor from Lewis and Clark College, planted this image into my head more than two decades ago and it stuck and seems absolutely appropriate here, and frightening, that public educators are sometimes no more than intellectual worker bees. I’m betting the bees are more efficient and effective. But teachers are busy. Like the bees, we’re very busy.

I believe students should be met where they are and a teacher should take them as far forward as he can while they’re in his classroom—forward in skills, knowledge, thinking, awareness of self and others, general humanity. Achievable goals should be agreed upon. Improvements and epiphanies should be measured and recorded. A conversation should take place about barriers broken and territory explored. Evidence of the learning should be gathered and shared. There should be much rejoicing. And I think these kinds of things could be, and sometimes are, achieved without stacks of paper. And the results would be so much more powerful and meaningful than the scores received on a standardized test, which my district has kids taking again and again and again, every year, often more than once, so that maybe, one day, on one test, they may reach the benchmark of one point above passing. These results would be more meaningful than where a kid falls on some rubric, which, more often than not, measures at once too broadly and too narrowly and never personally or individually. And these kinds of results would also blow points and grades out of the water. Here’s a portfolio of evidence. This is what has been accomplished and learned. Who needs ten points, a hundred points, or a grade? You do the math.

Published by michaeljarmer

I'm a public high school English teacher, fiction writer, poet, and musician in Portland, Oregon

3 thoughts on “An English Teacher Doesn’t Do The Math: The Trouble With Assessment

  1. I struggled with the same issues for the ten years I taught college writing, Michael. And it really does come down to a numbers game. To get better, students need to write. A lot. Ideally, they’d get thoughtful feedback from their teacher and have focused, specific conversations about their writing. But to do that really well, teachers would need either a fraction of the students they’re actually required to teach or some device that stretches each day into 72 hours, along with a serum that increases their capacity for patience and empathy. Simply put, we demand the impossible of teachers.

    The pundits and columnists who bemoan the lack of “results” (leaving aside for now the issue of what we we’re actually talking about when we talk about the results of standardized tests) in public education often don’t want to hear about why students aren’t getting better–it’s because we’re running something closer to cattle yards than schools. No single teacher can turn that around, no matter how inspiring or talented he or she may be. As you’ve no doubt noticed, the kids who tend to do the best are the ones who get support and education beyond the classroom (there are always exceptions, of course). As it’s currently configured, public education is guaranteed deprive students and teachers the time and sanity really needed to get the results we all really want.

  2. Man, do I sympathize, Michael. Like you, I teach writing in a senior high school. However, in my case, I teach English writing at a JAPANESE senior high school.

    …as in a senior high school in “growing up is a sequence of exams” Japan.

    Five or six years ago I was actually asked by the chairman of the PTA to stop trying to teach the students. “As a parent,” he said, “I don’t care if my kid learns anything or not. I only want them to get into a good university so they can get a good occupation and a good position in society. Please understand this. This is what we’re paying you to do.”

    It wasn’t a new or vain statement, either; 12 years ago, when I was still a rather new teacher at Ye Olde Academy, I tried to teach my 12th grade English classes the way my most respected German teachers in college (and my favorite English teachers in high school) had taught me: with as much emphasis as possible on practical, creative use of the language with bits and pieces of real life sown in and a genuine attempt to get the kids to think and to write what they wanted to because they wanted to. What was the result? Students dismissing my class as “irrelevant” and labeling me “incompetent” as a teacher. Complaints from parents to the PTA and to the principal that I was harming their kids’ chances of getting into good colleges. Me getting officially removed from the senior high section and transferred to the junior high…and very nearly fired.

    The flip side of that coin is that the kids of the two parents who complained about me the most vociferously that year both got into Japan’s #1 university…and thanked me. That’s probably why I wasn’t fired. It’s probably also why, from then on, I was asked to teach a more specialized grade 12 writing seminar, and I generally got favorable reactions from the students even while other teachers complained that I wasn’t teaching “right” (i.e. concentrating only on exam performance). Now I teach a regular grade 11 writing course in addition to my junior high classes, and again, while doing the prescribed curriculum, I also try as much as I can to get the students to think and do things because they want to rather than just blankly doing the minimum requirements and pretending to listen to the teacher’s rambling lectures. I also make it a point always to write comments on the students’ compositions. (To my knowledge, none of the other teachers do so.) It’s not just instruction; it’s also encouragement…and an invitation to open the eyes a bit wider.

    I’ll conclude this lengthy rant (sorry) with something very ironic. Six years ago, when an educational research firm did a standardized assessment of our school’s English performance (*cringe*), their conclusion was that we needed to focus more on writing at all levels…with an emphasis on practical, creative use of the language, i.e. the way I’d taught six years before…when I got complained about so much and then punished. Our English department faculty acted like it was the most revolutionary thing they’d ever heard. I should have felt vindicated, but I just felt frustrated. I’ve been given some justification, but that still doesn’t mean the system is going to accept what I want to offer.

  3. My husband presented an idea to me just now that all college students should be required to teach in the subjects they are learning, to younger students. We talked about taking it a step further, with high school kids teaching younger kids. Much smaller “classes,” much more emphasis on actually learning, if you’re going to have to turn around and teach, much more individual attention, and the paper reading gets spread out. Ideally, the actual learning potential grows exponentially, and generations get connected in a way never seen before here in the industrialized West.

    The first thing I thought of was all the disinterested students I went to school with, the ones that nothing seems to motivate as they barely (or don’t) fulfill requirements. That would be a whole lot of bad teaching. It would be a rocky start, at best. However, I do believe that trust inspires trustworthiness, and responsibilities inspire responsibility, and ultimately it couldn’t be any worse than what we have going.

    There are plenty of good educational models that have never made it to the larger public school sphere to even be tested, but I think it’s a worthy idea.

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