When it comes to grading essays, teachers have multiple choices

Life would be sweeter, say English and social studies teachers, if all grading consisted of checking off true or false, multiple-choice, and fill-in-the-blank answers. Sweeter unless the teacher has a conscience, since how can students develop thinking and written communication skills unless they write? What can sour the work of a conscientious teacher is that gnawing feeling, after sifting through an enormous pile of essays, of having been too forgiving in some cases and too severe in others.

During the interminable grading session, the teachers explain, they read some essays that skirt the question -- but articulately. How many points should be taken off for skirting? How many given for skillful articulation?

Other essays tenaciously grapple with the issues, but never come together. How many points off for inconclusiveness? Other essays are reasonable, but unimaginative or unsubstantiated.

The gray areas between right and wrong leave room for subjectivity and debate. How can essay grading be made less nebulous, time-consuming, and vulnerable to dissent?

Alleen Nilsen, co-editor of English Journal, the publication of the National Council of Teachers of English, receives many articles on holistic grading of written work.

Rather than ``tear apart everything the child has written,'' she says, the teacher using the holistic approach reads the whole essay and focuses only on what was just taught -- organization, sentence combinations, or point of view. This approach not only minimizes the teacher's task, but also helps the students to know in advance what will be emphasized, which gives focus to their preparatory study.

English departments giving schoolwide tests employ another type of holistic evaluation: grading by committee. Each essay is read and given a number score by several teachers. The student's grade is the composite score of the evaluators.

Because this objectifying approach increases the workload of already overworked English teachers, Dr. Nilsen says she doubts it will ever be widely used.

Most of the teachers interviewed by the Monitor agreed on at least two points: (1) You can never wholly eliminate subjectivity from essay grading; (2) students should be given a clear idea of the teacher's expectations. The latter, they say, goes a considerable way toward alleviating the former.

Helen Stone, who taught English for nearly 20 years at Northeastern University and Worcester State College, says: ``The problem with essay questions is that they tend to be too generalized. . . . If you make your expectations clear in the question, it makes grading less nebulous.''

Working with freshman writing textbooks, Ms. Stone developed the following list that spells out her expectations of essays written in her course:

1. Quality of thought: sincerity, honesty, perception, and effort. (Does this essay represent the best work you can do at this point in the course?)

2. Organization: Do you have a clear thesis? Does the introduction prepare the reader for what follows? Is the organization clear and logical? Does each paragraph have unity, order, and coherence? Does each paragraph link with the paragraphs before and after it? Is the conclusion relevant and meaningful?

3. Correct presentation: Word choice, spelling, punctuation, subject-verb agreement, sentence structure. Be sure to proofread!

4. The total effect of the essay: Is the essay a complete work, and not a series of unconnected elements? Have you given the reader the help required for understanding your ideas? Would you expect a college audience to respect your effort on this essay?

Chad Baer, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Brentwood Junior High near St. Louis says he tries to make essay grading as objective as possible.

He requires the essays to have some paragraphs with a minimum number of sentences in each and at least three pieces of supporting evidence in each. He sometimes cooperates with the English department in evaluating matters of style.

Eighth-grade English teacher Joan Krater of nearby Hickson Junior High, who has taught for 22 years, looks for the elements of writing she has focused on in her teaching: specificity, transitions, sentence-combining, language control, paragraph order, spelling, and usage. She also uses the ``rhetorical triangle,'' focusing on three elements of writing: speaker, audience, and purpose. From these come her evaluative questions: How appropriate is this word choice for your speaker? How effective is th is paragraph in reaching your audience? Does this point relate to your purpose?

According to Brian Taylor, chairman of the English Department of St. Louis Country Day School, there are two ways to evaluate an essay: analytically or holistically. He uses both approaches.

He grades some essays analytically, identifying the strong and weak points, sometimes giving separate grades for various aspects of the essay. He also uses the holistic approach, reacting quickly to the effect of the whole essay, he says, ``because life is too short to give analysis to each test.''

Another way teachers deal with an overwhelming volume of essays is to establish a priority list of essentials. What the teacher believes is most crucial in writing appears first on the list; the least crucial aspect of writing appears at the end. An example is the priority list used in the freshman writing program at Northeastern University: (1) content; (2) point of view; (3) organization; (4) style; and (5) mechanics.

If an essay comes in with content problems (it's not focused on a single subject or it lacks purpose), the teacher's comments and evaluation are directed solely at this problem. Other problems can be tackled in later essays during the course.

But the actual grading of the essays is only part of the picture, since, says Mr. Taylor, ``In the classroom the teacher is responsible for teaching those standards by which their students' work will be evaluated.''

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