NCTE Speech, Las Vegas Part 2

Part 2: In the present climate of testing kids to the point when it feels almost weird when we are not giving an assessment on any given week, it is hard to remember a time when we weren’t obsessed with gathering data.  But I’m telling you, the idea of assessment back then, at least in my Midwestern city, was kind of intriguing and cute. Kind of like visiting a friend who just had a baby. Fun to hold and play with for a few hours, but also a relief to leave. That’s how a lot of us felt about this newish writing assessment business. Surely, this would ultimately have no impact on the staff or kids. (And I’m not calling any of you Shirley.)

The St. Louis School Board of Education Building was located at 901 N. Locust Street in downtown St. Louis.  I was born without a sense of direction, or that too was cut off by the mohel, so despite having lived my entire life in St. Louis, except when I went away to college, I became completely lost and was fifteen minutes late when I arrived. The receptionist told me the assessment room had been moved due to a water main break. I was told to go to the bottom floor of a nearby building. Very explicit directions. I flew down the street and dove down the stairs to where I was told to go, and when I say dove, I mean it almost literally. The stairwell was dark and musty leading to another door.  It looked like the basement of an old, abandoned warehouse.  I didn’t even open this door, convinced I was in the wrong place. After running back to the receptionist who assured me I had, in fact, been in the right place, I hustled back and yanked hard on the metal handle, positive the door would be rusted shut. It flew open with a bang, startling the 40 or 50 teachers packed inside. Once again, I was the only guy.

The director of the program, a peroxide blond woman, haggard and edgy, kind of a Marlborough Woman without the horse or rugged good looks, nearly dismissed me on the spot for being a half hour late. I wouldn’t have blamed her, and truth be told, I kept suggesting she do just that. Instead, I was instructed to take the remaining seat near the back. We sat in kid desks that had probably been retired back in the 1920’s. As a lefty, I was never a fan of having to contort into one of those all-in-one desks with the right arm tablets.

Just to give you an idea of the room’s ambience, as I said, we had been moved due to a burst pipe, but they switched us to a room which probably had enough dripping water to hydroponically grow every species of mushroom.  I think there were sixteen trashcans sprinkled around the room catching polyrhytmically dripping water. I began sneezing almost immediately because of the mold and felt nauseous for the rest of June.  The windowless room with its dim florescent lighting and balky air conditioning helped further create the kind of atmosphere the CIA may want to consider when questioning captured Al Qaida.  Now might be a good time to also mention that the woman sitting next to me ripped a thunderous bomb not more than ten minutes after I initially sat down, literally rattling my seat, creating instant paranoia that the other teachers would assume it came from me.  The director allayed my fears, however, by telling Delores to put a cork in it, for God’s sake! Delores, however, did not put a cork in it. Her eruptions became as predictable as a certain Wyoming geyser, and along with the mold, had me gasping for air like a waterless fish throughout the day.

The director informed everyone we would be using a six point system to score the essays. The idea was that we would practice evaluating previously scored tests, or in this case benchmark papers, with the intent that everyone would be on the same page when it came to assigning scores.  So, if the essay had been given a “3” by the director, which we wouldn’t know until everyone had scored it, the goal was that 80% of us teachers would have also labeled it a “3.”  The plan was that by noon, after four hours— three and a half for Edward since he was late, she pointed out— so after four hours of evaluating these so-called benchmark papers, we would be ready to begin scoring the thousands of essays from St. Louis city and St. Louis county schools. At the time, years before I would be part of a terrific program called the Show Me (Classroom Performance) Assessment Project where I learned that writing and evaluating assessments requires A LOT of training, maybe hundreds of hours… four hours of training seemed perfectly reasonable to me back then.

Our noon deadline drew precariously closer.  Our best group average in getting the right benchmark score was just 12%. The director was getting downright hostile, muttering all kinds of verbal epithets.

“I’m going to have to let some of you go if we don’t do a better job, ladies and Edward,” which is how she always addressed the group, Ladies and Edward.

Now, I don’t know exactly how many schools submitted their students’ writing, but I had no doubt we were looking at tens of thousands of essays. Frankly, I sucked as bad as everyone else in the room.  I was continually two points off from the director. If she scored a paper a 4, I had given it a 2.  A good essay for me might earn a 5 but a 3 from the director. And so it went all day. The lunch break was cut in half to make up for lost time. By the time 4:00 rolled around, the teachers never matched the director’s score higher than 18% on any given essay.  In fact, the director was so apoplectic at day’s end that she merely waved us out, unable to speak.

When I regaled my wife, Anne, with the days events, she didn’t believe much of what I had to say simply because she was convinced school districts would not pay so much money and devote a swath of their curriculum on the results of this writing assessment.  Anne, however, latched onto something I told her regarding the scoring of essays. She suggested that if I thought an essay was low-average, like a “4,” to then drop my score by two. Likewise, if I thought it was a higher than average story, maybe a high “4” or even a “5,” round up to “6” and maybe I would match the director.  The next day at 901 N. Locust, nearly half the teachers had been let go. Somehow, I was lucky enough to not get cut, something the director kept reminding us survivors of throughout that day.  From the first benchmark paper of the morning, I tried Anne’s method of rounding up or down.  By the time we got to our lunch break, I was nearly perfect.  The downside was that I knew all of my scores were probably bogus, but on the positive side, I had become Edward the Great, The Director’s Pet.  I left feeling pretty damn good, minus the nausea from the mold and a sore throat from breathing through my mouth because of Delores and her lack of cork.

I survived my three weeks of assessing countless essays, a great percentage of which were absolutely awful, and my eyes, throat and lungs are only just now recovering 20 years later.  In a room that FEMA would have declared off limits, morale was terrible, the process incredibly tedious and mind-numbingly dull.  And the scoring was a joke. Although I know the training for the current state assessment is much more rigorous and legitimate, sort of, a close friend of mine became one of the director’s of English for Missouri’s state assessment program, and he too had major concerns about the tedium, morale and quality of assessors. Geez, I hope none of them are in this room right now!  My spy mission was not in vain, however. After that, our district spent a lot of time training its own teachers to create and score performance assessments, and a lot of us became pretty adept at doing it.

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