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A Tale Of Two Student Essays

“Ball so hard, let’s get graded/Don’t get me? I’ll elucidate/A-D/Won’t fool me/Check my score and validate it.”

I recited those lyrics — an adaptation of a Watch the Throne song that I called “Regents in Paris” — over the public address system at my school last week. Teachers and students danced in the hallway chanting in time “Let’s do this test/Let’s pass this test.” It was an absurd scene that fit with the absurd scenario: Students’ reading/writing ability was about to be “officially” assessed in the form of a three-hour-long onslaught of mundane, out-of-context passages that students were supposed to care about enough to analyze in short snippets of writing.

Yes, it was time for the January Regents exams. I had asked half of my junior class to sit for the English Regents even though they did not need to pass it until June. The plan was that we could get the test out of the way for them. The other half of the group took a mock Regents exam to prepare for the June test, and I took it with them. I wanted to understand the test-taking experience more genuinely.

Before I could get to the Regents exams, though, I had to review students’ final papers for my English class. I spent the beginning of the week doing just that. Though the students’ work had some internal inconsistencies and plenty of room for growth, these essays showed that they had successfully analyzed novels through the lens of gender identity and gender socialization. The essays were well structured, validated by quotations, and genuinely interesting to read.

Reflecting on the book she read, one student wrote: “Seeing a forked tongue on a human for the first time, Lui states that it ‘is normally something done by crazy people.’ This suggests that modification has become less of an expectation for women and more of self-expression for both genders.” Another student compared the story “The Yellow Wallpaper” to the Japanese novel “Snakes and Earrings.” The student wrote, “Yet, despite the constant burdens placed on the women mainly because of their gender, by the end of the 20th century they were able to make it possible for people such as those in Hitomi Kanehara’s ‘Snakes and Earrings’ to exist without constant oppression from the men in their lives.” The students’ writing showed a level of insight and engagement that outstripped what I had in high school. These papers were the result of two weeks of drafting and revising — otherwise known as the writing process.

By Wednesday, I had finished grading the final papers and joined all of the school’s English teachers as we sequestered ourselves in a room and pore over of the results of the Regents exams. After hearing the feedback and reviewing some of the work myself, I felt like the students’ writing had regressed to an eighth- or ninth-grade level. Some very talented kids wrote sufficient but very rudimentary essays. This upset me and set me to reflect over why there was such a gap between the final papers and the Regents.

Was it:

A. They ran out of time
B. They forget details of the books they had read
C. The simplistic format produced simplistic results
D. My editing and consultations during the writing of their final papers had completely supplemented their lack of skill

To answer this question, I looked at the results of my own mock Regents exam and compared it to other writing I have recently done. I found that the writing gap existed for me too.

For me, the reasons were clear: A and C were the main engines for my decline in writing quality. A lack of time made me rush. Because I was pressed for time, I chose vocabulary that was simple rather than sophisticated and displayed my hasty and embarrassing handwriting. I was also self-conscious because I knew that I would only be able produce a first draft.

The format was simple and so was my essay. As many teachers know, you get what you ask for. If you give students a series of questions with one line on which to write the answer, you are guaranteed to get a stripped-down, one-line answer. When the standard increases, usually so does the quality. The Regents demands that essays be taut and focused, but ultimately lacking in insight and original thought. The students gave the state what the state asked for.

I finished Regents week with “Regents in Paris” still echoing in my head and being sung by students before tests. I am anxiously waiting for the official results, sincerely hoping the students passed — but not because it would validate my teaching and not because it would prove that they are indeed quality readers and writers. I want them to have passed so they can focus on higher-level writing and thinking — the kind of intellectual engagement that will make them successful in college and beyond.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.

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