For one project our huge group spent weeks scoring ninth-grade movie reviews, each of us reading approximately 30 essays an hour (yes, one every two minutes), for eight hours a day, five days a week. At one point the woman beside me asked my opinion about the essay she was reading, a review of the X-rated movie “Debbie Does Dallas.” The woman thought it deserved a 3 (on a 6-point scale), but she settled on that only after weighing the student’s strong writing skills against the “inappropriate” subject matter. I argued the essay should be given a 6, as the comprehensive analysis of the movie was artfully written and also made me laugh my head off.
All of the 100 or so scorers in the room soon became embroiled in the debate. Eventually we came to the “consensus” that the essay deserved a 6 (“genius”), or 4 (well-written but “naughty”), or a zero (“filth”). The essay was ultimately given a zero.
I'm cautiously enthusiastic about the National Governors' Association-led effort to move toward national education standards. (Even though the first draft of the English/Language Arts standards was maddeningly vague.) But with national standards will come national standardized tests, so it's an especially good time to rethink how these exams are scored, and by whom. Perhaps teachers and principals should be scoring tests, not $8 an hour part-timers. In that case it would be important, especially with the push for merit pay, to make sure teachers aren't grading their own students' tests, to decrease the temptation to engage in foul play.
The fact of the matter is, scoring isn't fun, and it's not something teachers will want to spend more time doing. In some countries with great schools, like Finland, detailed national educational standards have not led to a major focus on standardized tests. For a variety of reasons, that doesn't look like the likely outcome in the U.S. So I only hope that we learn from past testing mistakes and create a more consistent, humane system, driven by deep respect for the critical thinking and writing skills necessary for success in higher education and on the job market.