N.J.'s Tough New Writing Tests Have Students, Teachers Anxious
Leslie Brody | The Record
As they have for generations, high school teachers lament that many teenagers can’t write clearly. College professors say too many freshmen can’t articulate their ideas in lucid prose. And employers say it can be difficult to find job applicants able to draft a professional letter.
But now, alarm over the poor quality of many students’ writing is taking on new force as New Jersey ratchets up its expectations for children in every grade. In less than two years, the state plans to launch more demanding annual exams that, after a transition period, students must pass to graduate.
The challenge ahead is daunting. Consider this excerpt from an essay about John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” by a Bergen County ninth-grader, a native English speaker without special needs: “George had Lennie picture there dream and made him think peaceful. He made Lennie imiginate there house.”
Complicating matters is the concern that some teachers aren’t able to meet the new writing goals that are being set for their students — and so need training themselves, state officials acknowledge.
Tracey Severns, the state’s chief academic officer, said she was startled to discover that teachers in her graduate course for prospective administrators had trouble organizing a coherent research paper. “The degree of struggle to do this kind of 11th-grade work was stunning,” she said. “This calls into question, how ready are we at every level to do this work?”
Indeed, critics of the initiative charge that many children — especially those who face the hardships of poverty or speak English as a second language — are being set up to fail.
Supporters of the new guidelines, meanwhile, say they encourage more sophisticated writing as an intellectual tool to help students think clearly. They believe this marks a big leap from current writing assignments, which too often prompt students to describe how they “feel” about a book instead of asking them to justify their interpretations by citing specific passages.
David Coleman, a leading architect of the changes and now president of the College Board, insists that students must learn to “read like a detective and write like an investigative reporter.”
Just about everyone acknowledges that the coming expectations are high — and go far beyond correct grammar to gauging whether students can offer an in-depth analysis of what they are reading. One of the few prototype questions available from the new tests asks high school sophomores to read “Daedalus and Icarus,” by the Roman poet Ovid, and “To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Triumph,” by the modern American poet Anne Sexton.
“Write an essay that provides an analysis of how Sexton transforms Daedalus and Icarus,” the instructions say. “As a starting point, you may want to consider what is emphasized, absent or different in the two texts.”
Many English teachers have expressed anxiety about how their students will fare. “When you see that one example for 10th-graders, it can be very intimidating,” said Regina Melnyk, an English teacher at Teaneck High School.
The issue can be a sensitive one. Two of the teachers interviewed for this story asked afterward for their comments to be deleted, and two others canceled appointments for a reporter to visit their classrooms. One said he didn’t want his students’ work “exposed to scrutiny.”
Some districts, such as Hawthorne, are trying to tackle the problem by having students practice writing across all subjects. They’re hoping to avoid what happened last year in Kentucky, where passing rates tumbled when children were tested against the new expectations for the first time. Among elementary students, for example, the percentage scoring at least “proficient” in writing dropped from 60 percent to 32 percent.
These higher goals are part of the Common Core, a set of voluntary standards being implemented this year by New Jersey and most other states that outline what children should be able to do in language arts and math at each grade. Some conservative critics have charged the Common Core represents federal overreach, while liberal opponents denounce the push for more testing.
New Jersey officials say that meeting the more ambitious standards will ensure that high school graduates are truly ready for college-level work. They have a huge gap to close: At the community colleges in Bergen and Passaic counties, for example, two-thirds of entering students must take a remedial class in writing before they are allowed to start college work in English.
Poor writing and comprehension is a problem in every state and at every income level. The National Assessment of Educational Progress found that in 2011, only 27 percent of American 12th-graders could write at a level deemed proficient or better.
Fifty-five percent of the students in the Class of 2012 who took the SAT failed to meet the writing section score that predicts likely success in college, said the College Board, which administers the test. While the mean score in math held steady over the past five years nationwide, the mean score in writing fell from 493 to 488, out of a possible 800 points. New Jersey fared slightly better, with a mean of 499 in writing last year.
This issue is hardly new: Back in 1975, a Newsweek cover story titled “Why Johnny Can’t Write” bemoaned that “the U.S. educational system is spawning a generation of semi-literates.” But educators say the problem has been aggravated by children’s superficial reading habits and overstretched teachers who can’t give detailed corrections to papers. Some also cite the rise of high-speed dispatches such as text messages, Facebook posts and tweets.
One teacher in Paramus was so fed up with the mistakes bombarding her students in advertisements that she wrote an irate letter to McDonald’s to complain about the lack of capitalization in the slogan “i’m lovin’ it.”
Employers say bad writing can land job applications in the trash. Philip Kirschner, president of the New Jersey Business and Industry Association, said that young people “communicate a great deal — perhaps more than in previous generations — but it’s in a shorthand, informal manner, so when they do try to write formally, whether in an email or résumé, sometimes the quality is shockingly poor.”
To be sure, teenagers display a wide spectrum of ability, and many teachers express great pride in their students’ creative stories, poetry and prose. At one Bergen high school, a senior in an Advanced Placement class recently handed in a compelling, nuanced essay on Joseph Heller’s novel “Catch-22.” A senior in a lower-level English track at that same school, however, submitted a rambling account of a race that lacked proper punctuation, verb tenses and paragraphs. “To tell the truth,” the student wrote, “it had not mattered to me the state of being of my friend.”
A teacher in another district, who asked not to be identified, said it was “depressing” to see teenagers who couldn’t even manage simple grammar. “It’s not because [the instruction] wasn’t delivered in lower grades,” the teacher said. “It’s because they’re not hanging on to it” or making an effort.
State Education Commissioner Chris Cerf has predicted that when the new tests — being designed by a national consortium — arrive in 2014-15, New Jersey will see passing rates fall. In the first years of adjustment, failure will not bar students from getting diplomas. It is unclear, however, when that might change: Last May, the state announced that children now in fifth grade would be the first to face such serious consequences, but this month a department spokesman said the timing had yet to be decided.
“The purpose of these tests is not a ‘gotcha,’ ” Cerf said. “It’s to identify — child by child — areas of strength and weakness and to construct interventions early.”
Many teachers, however, are worried about the immediate impact on their own careers, because starting next year, their evaluations will become partly dependent on growth in students’ scores.
One obstacle to improvement, some educators say, is that many teachers grew up in schools that emphasized creativity and personal expression over precise rules of spelling and sentence structure. Severns, the chief academic officer, said that when she was a principal in Mount Olive, she had a “very hard time” finding qualified literacy teachers who understood the conventions of language.
“There are teachers who are rock stars,” she said. “There are others who need more help.”
Charlotte Danielson, a Princeton-based expert in classroom practices, supports the Common Core’s rigor but worries that many teachers are not prepared to implement it rapidly. She hopes high stakes won’t be attached to test results right away.
“The instruction that will have to be done to acquire these skills is … really high level and includes a lot of student inquiry and investigations and deep conceptual understanding,” she said. “Many teachers were not trained to teach that way. That’s one reason I’m afraid of a train wreck.”
The standards have spurred some districts to urge teachers in math, science and even art to give writing assignments. At Hawthorne High School, former English teacher Theresa DiGeronimo is leading a schoolwide charge called “writing across the curriculum.” One science teacher, for example, assigned a research paper on careers that require a background in science and technology.
“It’s truly a team effort to raise the reading and writing ability of students,” DiGeronimo said. “It’s not just the English department’s responsibility anymore. Now a math teacher will penalize you for spelling ‘trigonometry’ wrong.”
Teachers trained for this initiative last year. Now they give students a road map for five-paragraph essays and stress the need to revise repeatedly after consulting a checklist: “Have I varied my sentence structure? Have I used points from the plot as support for my essay? Have I used transitions effectively?”
When a student hands in a final paper, a classroom teacher grades it for content while DiGeronimo grades it for proper style. Matt Fenkart, an 18-year-old senior, said the extra attention helped. DiGeronimo made him rewrite an essay three times because he kept drifting off topic. “I have a tendency to go on and on forever,” he said.
Some teachers are optimistic that the higher standards will pay off in time. But Jessica Restaino, a Montclair State University professor who helps educators learn how to teach writing, says many don’t feel equipped.
“I hear teachers all the time say they don’t feel they have been trained to teach and assess writing,” she said. “They may not identify as a writer so it feels a little alien. … I do think we have a responsibility to have a deeper conversation about what teachers need and how we can support them.”