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Under pressure to score tests faster, a proposal to scrap writing

Next year, the state’s English tests could be missing one crucial component: writing.

That’s the conclusion that educators are drawing after the Board of Regents weighed a proposal earlier this month to eliminate the open-ended question section of the state’s standardized tests — the only part of the third through eighth grade testing regime that asks students to write out their answers in sentences.

The proposal is one of several ideas the Board of Regents, the state panel that sets New York’s education policy, is considering in order to speed up the test-grading process, following a new federal regulation ordering states to tell schools sooner whether or not they are meeting states standards. (State test scores play a large part in making that decision.) Changing the way the tests are graded could also cut costs.

The Regents have been studying how to meet the new federal requirement for almost a year. The prospect of scrapping writing first surfaced publicly when the Regents published the findings of a survey the board conducted to study the question. Of 22,000 parents and educators surveyed, 85% said the essay questions should remain.

Two other proposals are also on the table. One would have schools give the tests earlier in the year, a change educators said would give them less time to prepare students and make the tests a poor judge of the teacher’s performance. Another proposal would hire an outside vendor grade the tests, rather than local New York teachers. More than three-quarters of teachers said in the poll that they prefer local or regional scoring to the vendor option. Some teachers said they appreciate grading as a chance to get a better understanding of the test.

But it’s the change to the English test that’s attracted the most disappointment. “It would be a disaster if they took those questions off,” said Deborah Reck, the CEO and co-founder of The Writers’ Express, a Boston-based nonprofit that supports writing instruction, including some classes in the city. Overburdened teachers would spend less time teaching writing if they knew their students wouldn’t be tested on it, she said.

Bronx middle school English teacher Jordan Kutcher is one of those teachers. At a school whose test scores are low, Kutcher spends two months prepping students for the state exam. Knowing what’s on the exam helps her choose what to focus on, she said. “I can see the argument that [changing the test] could lead to less writing instruction, which is a bad thing,” she said.

Lynette Guastaferro, the executive director of Teaching Matters, a non-profit based in the city, said eliminating writing would make the test less rigorous. “I’m not in favor of throwing out the section that I think tests higher-order thinking skills,” she said.

One policy analyst told me it’s possible that the state could find better ways to make scoring more efficient. Bill Tucker, chief operating officer at the D.C. think tank Education Sector and the author of a recent report on the future of testing, said that the state could cut scoring costs substantially by requiring each essay to be read only once — by a human. Then, rather than getting a second pair of eyes to check that score, a computer could do the corroboration.

Only if there is a discrepancy between the two scores would a second human review both grades, Tucker suggested. (This is how the essay section of the GRE, taken by applicants to graduate school, is being graded as of this year.)

The Board of Regents has yet to decide the fate of open-ended state test questions. “There was a discussion,” said State Education Department spokesman Tom Dunn about the Regents’ March 16 meeting. “But no conclusions were made.”

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