Composition Theory and Pedagogy
Writing Instruction in the Shadow of the Regents Exam
by Daniel Simonds
As a teacher of English at the High School level, and therefore an instructor of writing, one is faced with a myriad of problems that seem to fester in the teacher’s mind without answer. The problems, or shall we say challenges, that a writing instructor faces can include, but are not limited to, the validity of standard assessment tools, state regulations for the style of composition taught, institutional standards set forth by the particular district one teaches in, the common problem of structure versus content in assessment, and the unchangeable issues students deal with at home and in their previous writing courses. Each of the problems stated offer the instructor a series of challenges that can grow to seem insurmountable, though the most difficult of all of the challenges, especially in my young career as a teacher of writing, is the state mandated Regents and English Language Arts examinations. While the standardized tests are designed as benchmarks for a grade level to have met, they are problematic for the writing teacher in several ways.
Aside from the problems one faces due to the pressure of the exams, the writing instructor must also deal with the inevitable question of why should writing be taught, and how should it be taught with the inherent roadblocks built into the current New York State education system? On one hand, the application of various pedagogies is essential to examine, though if the instructor has not decided why he or she should be teaching the material in the first place, the actual instruction will collapse. In other words, the teacher must know why he or she is teaching writing before that teacher examines how to teach writing. My intentions, though, are not to convince anyone of my philosophies on why writing should be taught, for every teacher must examine the issue in the context of the district he or she teaches in; instead, I suggest that the processes used in teaching writing are often times counter-productive in terms of the Regents exam, and that the Regents exam may be counter-productive in the actual preparation of students to be “good” writers.
Already the layers of problems are evident. Aside from learning how to teach a student to write, one must first decide why the student needs to be taught, and how significantly the instruction needs to focus on the state mandated examinations. Nonetheless, as I have stated, the purpose of this paper is to focus on the issue of standardized exams and their impact on writing instruction.
The Four Tasks
In order to effectively discuss the problems facing an instructor who is bound by the Regents system, one must first be familiar with each section of the exam itself. I will discuss each individually:
Part I: Listening
This section of the exam requires the student to listen to a passage or series of passages read aloud by the teacher, and then to write a brief essay and answer a series of questions regarding the passage. The student may take notes at any time during the readings. A variety of problems exist for the writing instructor in preparing the student for this part of the exam. First, the essay related to the reading passage, like all of the essays on the Regents exam, is a timed essay. The timed essay, while emblematic of various types of professional writing in its deadline, demand, and structure, strays from traditional process models of teaching writing. Critics like Peter Elbow who suggest writing need not be taught with rigid guidelines, still suggest that the process of writing is necessary, only not in a formal manner. Thus the process of pre writing, drafting, editing and revising, and final draft remains prominent, though the time constraints set forth by the exam force students to forego the process and produce quality work in a short amount of time. Thus the style of writing to be taught in the classroom is mandated not by the individual needs of the student-writers or the agenda of the teachers, but by the standardized exam put forth by the state.
Furthermore, the listening section of the exam requires the students to reproduce information that they have heard only a few minutes before writing. The teacher, then, in preparation for the exam, must step away from literary analysis and critical response to literature, and focus more on effective note taking and regurgitation of spoken information. As a new teacher, and one who is optimistic in thinking that students are to become free thinkers and educated readers, I try to step aside from simple regurgitation or reproduction of ideas. Instead, I urge my students to carefully examine a text, and then to form educated ideas based on the readings. The listening task, though, uses memorization and regurgitation as the motivation for creating writing, rather than individual thoughts and ideas. The inherent problem in this type of writing is that the motivation the student has for writing the paper is only to achieve an adequate level of reproduced information. For me as a teacher, this motivation is contradictory to that which is offered in class, and therefore the teacher is left with a difficult decision of how to approach the teaching of writing. Is he of she to prepare students for the exam, or to be adequate thinkers and writers, or is there a way to do both at the same time? (this concept recurs in every portion of the exam)
Part II: Read and Respond-Information
This portion of the exam asks students to read a given article or another type of writing along with a visual of some sort. The visual can range from a pie chart to a Venn diagram, a line graph to a political cartoon. The student is then required to answer a series of multiple-choice questions, followed by a short essay that asks the student to draw information from the texts. The problems with this part of the exam for the writing teacher are not all that different from those present in the listening task. The student again is required to regurgitate said information in a timed essay. Furthermore, the student must be proficient in analyzing charts and graphs. Again, the question the writing teacher faces is how to approach the teaching of writing with this task as one end goal: should the focus be on producing quality work over a period of time and a series of drafts, or should the teacher concentrate only on that information which is relevant for the Regents exam, for traditional writing instruction veers the students in the direction of literary analysis and interpretation. With this second task, the instructor of writing has gained yet another role in his or her preparation of students for the exam.
Part III: Read and Respond-Comparative Literature
In the third portion of the Regents exam, students are asked to compare two pieces of literature ranging from poetry to novel excerpts, and answer a series of multiple choice questions. Once again, the student must draft an essay, though this one is comparative and is meant to test the student’s ability to analyze literature. While this task is still relatively problematic for the teacher of writing in New York State, it presents fewer problems than the first two tasks. This portion of the exam allows the teacher to teach literature and writing along side one another, which for me seems ideal. The problematic aspect of preparing students for the task is the time limit placed upon the students. Instead of teaching the students to take time and use a process in their writing, the teacher is made to teach students to write quickly and accurately, while at the same time grammatically correct. In my experience with teenage writers, I have found it difficult to accomplish all three tasks over a sustained period of time, but the Regents exam insists students do all of these things in ninety minutes. Thus the instructor wrestles with the debate between advocating for an individualized process, and preparing students to produce quickly.
Part IV: Critical Lens
The final section of the Regents exam, and perhaps the most effective, requires the students to combine aspects of all other sections into one extended essay. The task provides the students with a general quote, or lens, and the student must then write a form of persuasive essay. In the essay, the student must first analyze and explain the lens. This explanation need not refer to any literature provided by the exam or read on the student’s own time. Then, the student must choose to agree with or disagree with the lens, and support the agreement or disagreement with evidence and reference to various texts he or she has read in school. The idea behind the task is sound: having students respond critically to literature using the vehicle of the lens. This lens provides the students with an opportunity to apply information from the readings to real life issues and situations. Such an application provides motivation for the students to not only read the text, but also to respond to it, as the connection to real life situations occur. The motivation here is different than that provided in the other tasks in that it tends to mimic situations that the students might encounter in real life. Instead of memorization and reproduction, here the student is motivated by analysis and ideas.
The critical lens, though, does have its own problems for the writing teacher. For example, the time constraints on the task limit the students’ ability to fully form and support a detailed argument. Furthermore, the instructor encounters the dilemma of whether to teach the students to write well regardless of the process involved, or should he or she teach students to write the best they can in a short period of time. I suggest that in post scholastic writing, whether in business or for personal correspondence, the former is more appropriate. Thus the teacher is torn between the demands of the exam and the realities of writing.
Instruction vs. Preparation
The issues prompted by these four complex tasks in the exam are abundant. With problems ranging from time constraints, to a lack of motivation, and from writing style contradictions to assessment of “good writing,” the writing instructor is faced with a series of debatable and difficult questions. Aside from the intricacies of the exam, the idea of having any standard exam at all raises issues for the writing instructor. When speaking with other teachers and even some who help design such exams, I have found that the central debate comes down to pedagogy and classroom decisions. Should the teacher teach writing, or is the teacher responsible for preparing students to pass the exam, and subsequently graduate from school? One stresses a guided type of instruction geared toward practicing and growing as a writer. The other suggests providing tools one will need to pass the test, commonly referred to as “teaching to the test.” I suggest instead that the central issue is finding a means to overlap the two methods as much as possible; in other words, to craft the exam and the teacher’s individual pedagogy in such a way that the guided instruction and growth in writing fosters success on the exam. Perhaps it already does, though the pedagogy I have begun to adopt seems to fall short.
In my brief career as a teacher of writing, I have had limited opportunities to deal with students progression toward the Regents exam. My first year of teaching was at the Eighth grade level. While Eighth graders do not have to take the Regents exam, they are subject to a similar standardized test: the ELA, or English Language Arts exam. This exam is modeled after different aspects of the Regents, though it is not entirely the same. Thus it may be an accurate judge of my Eleventh grade students this year. Those Eighth graders, and myself as their writing instructor, dealt with issues similar to those presented by the focus on the Regents exam. Furthermore, last year was my first as a teacher, so preparing students for the ELA exam was, for me, a separate task on top of my initial role as the teacher. Such an idea in itself is problematic, in that adding more to a teacher’s already hefty schedule seems to counteract the teacher’s initial goals. My students did do well on the exam, though I wonder how much I was able to influence their performance; for the students’ teachers throughout their education all played a significant role. One would then think that the only way to prepare a student for the standardized exams is to re-focus the students’ education from the bottom up. Perhaps traditional teaching methods can be effective in this preparation for standardized exams, though through my brief experience and conversations with veteran teachers, the task at hand presents major changes in writing instruction from elementary school through the exam.
The fact of the matter is that the Regents exam is an institution in New York State that seems to be here to stay. This provides an instructor of writing with an entire new set of challenges on top of those involved with the teaching of literature, character, expository writing, persuasive writing, personal writing, creative writing, and all other tasks lumped into what the state refers to as English Language Arts. At this point in my career as a teacher, just one full year experience, I find more often than not that I have not come up with answers for the many questions involved with the realm of writing in the shadow of the exam. Furthermore, the answers that I do test seem to always fall short in one respect or another. Thus my education continues. Most teachers denounce the test as something to deal with in a most unfortunate way, though in my optimistic youthful career, I hope to find a way to use the exam as a tool to foster writers. Complaining about the exam won’t change the fact that it exists, so we as writing teachers must accept the challenges we face as opportunities to succeed.
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