Monday, February 02, 2009

Plagiarism Ahoy!

I was reading the sample anchor essays for the NY State English Regents in preparation for wading through millions of ESL student papers last week, and I noticed something odd. The papers are rated 0-6, with 6 being the best possible score, and one of the sentences in the body of the level 5 essay was word for word from the passage, and not attributed with quotations. True, the writer had omitted the first few words of the sentence, but wasn't that plagiarism? I gave my kids strict instructions to attribute all work.

Well, if the powers-that-be in Albany chose to give that paper a 5, if was clearly not much of an offense. In fact, it apparently held no meaning whatsoever for the pros that determined the grades. Was it only that sentence? Probably not, but why bother looking? If a little plagiarism was OK, who's to question the depths of wisdom of our overseers in Albany? In any case, this was good for ESL students, at least the ones who hadn't been terrorized by unreasonable teachers like me.

Another happy surprise, though not a new one, was that conventions like grammar, usage and spelling had very little value. This was a boon to ESL students who've been in the country fewer than six months.

Some people are telling me that kids who manage to pass this test will be exempt from ESL instruction. I haven't checked that out, but frankly, it's hard for me to accept that passing a test that condones plagiarism means you no longer need help in English. It's particularly egregious because the things the test ignores (like grammar, usage, and spelling) are precisely the things I'd help with. And while the test includes a listening passage, there's no measurement of speech, which to me seems a fundamental aspect of language acquisition.

Now I'd say if you're born here and can't pass this test, maybe you're not ready to graduate. On the other hand, it takes time to acquire the language, people like me can teach kids how to pass this test without sufficiently doing so, and this is one of the poorest assessments of ESL students I've ever seen, unless you count the city's LAB test, which kids knowing little or no English pass as a matter of course.

I'm kind of in the middle regarding this testing mania. If you tell me my kids can't graduate without passing a test, I'll help them pass. Still, it sort of behooves Albany to design a test that actually measures their abilities, rather than one that actively deprives them of instruction they sorely need, and will probably have to pay for after we let them out of high school with outrageously deficient language skills.
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