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skoolboy wonders: Could a Parrot Pass the New York State ELA Exam?

By Eduwonkette — May 23, 2008 8 min read

A few days ago, A Voice in the Wilderness broke the story that the retest for the New York State English Language Arts exam had a task that required students to write a position paper arguing that inexperienced people can provide leadership, after listening to a speech by Wendy Kopp, founder of Teach For America. Some were appalled by the one-sided nature of the task, likening it to propaganda. eduwonkette’s take was that the task would be more defensible if students were given information on both sides and then asked to choose a side to argue.

The scoring guide for the task is now available on line, and it leads me in a different direction. I’m not close enough to high school English classrooms to know what a realistic level of competency is.

Here’s the task. Students were told that they would listen to a speech about young people who have become leaders in their communities. They were provided with the following situation:

Your leadership group has been debating whether leaders should have experience in their chosen fields. As part of this debate, you have decided to write a position paper in which you argue that inexperienced people can provide leadership. In preparation for your paper, listen to a speech by Wendy Kopp. Then use relevant information from the speech to write your position paper.

Students were instructed to be sure to : Tell your audience what they need to know about why inexperienced people can provide leadership; Use specific, accurate, and relevant information from the speech to support your argument; use a tone and level of language appropriate for a position paper for members of your leadership group; Organize your ideas in a logical and coherent manner; Indicate any words taken directly from the speech by using quotation marks or by referring to the speaker; and Follow the conventions of standard written English.

The passage, reproduced below, is from Wendy Kopp’s commencement speech at the University of North Carolina in 2006.

Thinking back to my own senior year in college, I wasn’t intending to start something like Teach for America—or to start anything at all for that matter. As a college senior I was applying to two-year corporate training programs, seeking out political internships, and generally struggling in my search for something that I really wanted to do. My generation was dubbed the “Me Generation.” People thought all we wanted to do was focus on ourselves and make a lot of money. But that didn’t strike me as right. I felt as if thousands of us talented, driven graduating seniors were searching for a way to make a social impact but simply couldn’t find the opportunity to do so.

Well, during my senior fall, I helped organize a conference about education reform, where one of the topics was the shortage of qualified teachers in urban and rural communities. It was at that conference that I thought of an idea: Why doesn’t our country have a national teacher corps that recruits us to teach in low-income communities the same way we’re being recruited to work on Wall Street?

From that moment, I was possessed by this idea—I thought it would make a huge difference in kids’ lives, and that ultimately it could change the very consciousness of our country, by influencing the thinking and career paths of a generation of leaders.

So I did the obvious thing. I wrote a long and very passionate letter to the President of the United States suggesting he start this corps. That didn’t get very far—I received a job rejection letter in response. So in my undergraduate senior thesis, I declared that I would try to create such a corps myself, as a non-profit organization. When my thesis advisor looked at my budget, which showed that to recruit 500 new teachers into this corps during the first year would cost two-and-a-half million dollars, he asked me if I knew how hard it was to raise $2,500, let alone two-and-a-half million dollars. Aided by my inexperience, I was unphased by his question. When school district officials and potential funders laughed at the notion that the Me Generation would jump at the chance to teach in urban and rural communities, their concerns, too, went unheard.

That year 2,500 graduating seniors competed to enter Teach For America, in response to a grassroots recruitment campaign—flyers under doors since there was no email back then! And one year after I graduated, with two-and-a-half million dollars in hand from the corporate and foundation community, I was looking out on an auditorium full of 489 recent college graduates who had joined Teach For America’s first corps.

My very greatest asset in reaching this point was that I simply did not understand what was impossible. I would soon learn the value of experience, but Teach For America would not exist today were it not for my naivete.

I see this same phenomenon every day as I watch 23-year-olds walking into classrooms and setting goals for themselves and their students that most people believe to be entirely unrealistic. The conventional wisdom is that there is only so much schools can do to overcome the challenges of poverty and the lack of student motivation and parental involvement that is perceived to come with it. But then there’s Liam Honigsberg, a Teach For America corps member in Phoenix whom I met a couple of weeks ago. His school’s vice principal saw that he had a degree in cognitive neuroscience and, naturally, called him the day before school started to ask him to teach a math class wholly comprised of seniors who were in danger of not graduating because they had not been able to pass the math portion of the state’s exit exam. It was a daunting task. Liam’s students seemed to be entirely uninterested in math. Their performance levels ranged from not having passed algebra to not having passed geometry. But Liam determined that they could and would gain the skills to graduate. The Arizona Republic estimated last year that 5,000 students didn’t graduate in Arizona because they didn’t pass that exit exam, and yet thanks to Liam’s idealism, all of his students will walk across the stage this spring.

Just over 100 miles from here, Tammi Sutton and Caleb Dolan were teaching middle schoolers in Gaston County. Tammi and Caleb were just 25 years old when they decided that to truly ensure their students had the opportunities they deserved, they would have to actually go out and start a new school in their community—a school that would set their students up to go to college. This was a pretty radical idea in Gaston County and there were many skeptics. In spite of the many who said it could not be done, Tammi and Caleb designed a program with rigorous expectations that would run from 7:30 in the morning until 5 at night, on two Saturdays a month and three weeks during the summer.

There were many who said this could not be done. Yet now their 8th graders—students who came to them in 5th grade performing anywhere between the 1st to the 4th grade levels—are performing at a level that places their school among the state’s top 15 schools in reading, writing, and math.

Teach For America’s story, and Liam, Tammi and Caleb, show us that your inexperience is a real asset. I hope you will put it to good use.

Here’s the anchor paper, scored 4, the top score (in a scale from 1 to 4). Text verbatim.

As shown in Wendy Kopp’s speech, experience is not required to be a leader. I believe leaders can be anyone who has the drive and motivation to be seccessful in the task that is at hand. Experience is aquired through years of doing the same thing over and over again, leadership does not require that.

Wendy Kopp, the woman who stated Teach for America, was inexperienced when she started the program, yet she was very seccessful. She had the drive and motavation necessary to be a leader and never gave up. Many people believed her program would never be a success because her generation was dubbed the “me” generation. The “me” generation is a generation in which money and themselves are all that matter. However, peoples thoughts about how her program would never be a sucess did not stop her. Wendy Kopp started out by writing a letter to the president, this was unseccessful. She decided to write her undergraduate thesis on her idea for Teach for America and the teacher told her it was not possible, it required too much money. Wendy was still determined, so she went to buisnesses to asked for donations and she got laughed at. They believed she could not do it. She believed her generation had people who wanted to make a social impact. Urban and rural areas needed experienced teachers and her program was designed to help. Once she finally got the money, her program was a success, about 489 recent graduates joined her program.

Liam is a part of Teach for America. He was determined to make every senior in his class graduate, although, he did not have much support because many people thought they were hopless cases. Liam taught in Arizona, in a class of seniors who needed to pass a math exam to graduate. In Arizona about five thousand students did not graduate last year. Liam’s did.

Then there was Tammy and Caleb. They started a new school in Gaston County to teach children that were considered hopeless. Tammy and Caleb took 5th graders who were considered at the 1st to 4th grade level and made them model students by 8th grade. Thier school is now a top school.

Experience is not needed to be a effective leader. Motivation and determination is all that is necessary. Wendy Kopp is the proof of that.

The scoring commentary states the following:

Meaning: The response reveals an in-depth analysis of the text making clear and explicit connection between information and ideas in the text and the assigned task.

Development: The response develops ideas clearly and fully, making effective use of relevant and specific details from the text to argue that inexperienced, but determined, people can provide leadership.

Organization: The response maintains a clear and appropriate focus on how motivation and determination, rather than experience, are necessary for leadership. The response exhibits a logical and coherent structure through use of appropriate transitions.

Language Use: The response uses appropriate language, with some awareness of audience and purpose. The response occasionally makes effective use of sentence structure or length.

Conventions: The response demonstrates partial control of conventions, exhibiting occasional errors in spelling, punctuation, capitalization, and grammar that may hinder comprehension.

So readers, what do you think? Is the problem here the task, or what’s scored as an excellent response to it, or both?

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