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If I Don't Grade My Students' Regents Exams, Who Will?

Tuesday, November 08, 2011 - 10:38 AM

The New York State Board of Regents recently decided to change grading regulations to ban teachers from scoring their own students’ state exams. They said it was to prevent cheating.

DESCRIPTION Stephen Lazar

To any outsider, this seems like a simple decision. However, like too many educational decisions, it is actually a reactionary decision to a relatively small problem that will hurt a large number of students.

The current discourse around grading procedures challenges teachers’ ability to grade their students objectively and insults our professionalism. While there are isolated examples of teachers' going easy on their students, if not outright cheating, I have never understood why my judgment is trusted without a second guess when I am grading my students in my class, yet it is not for state exams. My passing rates are just as high-stakes for my students, school and me as my students’ Regents scores are.

For the sake of argument, though, I am willing to leave that aside and focus on the practical implications of the Board of Regents’ decision.

The new regulation leaves it to school districts to determine new structures for grading students’ open-ended-response questions on Regents exams. I would like to examine the potential options available within New York City, and the impact of each on students.

One option is to move toward computer-based assessments. This cannot work in the city for two reasons. First, city schools simply do not have the infrastructure or the resources in all buildings to handle the electronic and bandwidth requirements of such assessments.

Second, this would give a tremendous advantage to students who type faster, which would clearly favor students whose families can afford computers. This does not seem like an option that can be seriously considered.

Another option would be to have students’ exams graded at other schools or a neutral site. This would require monetary resources the city does not have. The added time necessary to grade exams would also dictate moving up the date of exams.

The Regents are end-of-course tests, though, and it seems only fair to students to give them — as they are now — at the end of June. Moving the exams to May would mean teachers would have to rush through content even more so than they do now, providing a further disservice to students.

Finally, the city could dictate that tests would continue to be graded at the same schools where they were taken, but that teachers could not grade their own students’ essays on these exams. This would work fine in large high schools, but would present problems in the hundreds of small schools that now serve students.

My school has two teachers with expertise in United States history, and both of us prepare students for the Regents. As students’ essays require two graders, our only option would be to have someone without content expertise grading students’ exams, which, again, would be unfair to students. This problem is even greater in the sciences and foreign languages.

A further negative unintended consequence of any new plan would be to remove from teachers the often humbling, but always informative, experience of seeing their own students’ work when it matters most to them.

While I seriously question the pedagogical validity of the exams, grading them each year gives me insight into how far my students have come in the school year, gives me feedback that is much more meaningful than a number and guides me in better serving my next group of students.

Despite its flaws, the only alternative that is fair to students is to continue with the current practice of Regents grading. Unfortunately, State Education Department officials say that to do so would be “inappropriate in an era when student test scores are used to evaluate teachers and principals.”

I say, though, it is always inappropriate to make educational decisions that are motivated by politics.

I hope that the Board of Regents will return to asking themselves how they can best support teachers in serving their students, rather than making decisions that hurt all students because of a very few isolated, but inevitable, bad apples.

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