Thursday, January 26, 2012

When All Else Fails, Write Your Essay in Your Native Language?

Like most other high school English teachers across the city, I spent yesterday scoring the English Regents exam. Specifically, I ended up grading many of the exams of our IEP and ELL students, who receive testing accommodations like extra time, having the test read aloud to them, and having a scribe record their answers for them.

Some of the results were pretty good. I had seen some of the students at Saturday school. For some of them, it was the third or fourth time they were taking the exam, and they were determined to get it over and done with.

I'm always amazed, incidentally, by how boring the reading passages on the Regents exam are. I suppose the Board of Regents has to avoid offending thousands of people on these exams, but still, there is so much great and compelling writing in the world that kids might actually find themselves engaged with reading. Imagine a Regents exam that had, for example, an excerpt from Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried paired with one of the Great War poets like Owen or Sassoon. Or one of Jane Austen's most sarcastic commentaries on female behavior paired with a feminist poet like Audre Lorde or Adrienne Rich. Just in case I'm still not supposed to talk about what was on this year's exam, I'll refrain from being more specific, but let's just say that I found the reading passages uniformly dull and unengaging (at least through the eyes of, say, a sixteen-year-old young man from Brooklyn), with the possible exception of the nonfiction piece.

BUT ANYWAY. The point I really wanted to make is that, while grading these exams, I came to a critical lens essay written entirely in a student's native language. I stopped dead in my tracks and consulted with the IEP teacher about whether or not this student had an accommodation. No, I learned, the English Regents must be written entirely in English. Other exams have accommodations for translation, but not the English Regents.

Which makes sense, on one hand, I suppose. But on the other, this student was clearly not ready for the challenge of writing an entire essay in English. It was someone's decision in Albany, someone who has never met this child or knows anything about what it's like to be forced to sit for 4.5 hours (with extended time) and take an essay in a language one understands well enough to slog through a fairly insulated and well-supported school day, but not enough to write a whole essay with absolutely no assistance.

I believe in high standards. I really do. But I don't believe in crazy ones.
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