Sarah W. Beck
"The goal is to help teachers target their instruction so they can say 'I see a large number of my students are having trouble developing a thesis statement, let's work on that.'"
Sarah Beck thinks a lot about high school students' transition to college. "They have to take these high-stakes tests, and teachers feel a tremendous amount of pressure preparing students for them."
Beck is trying to get to the heart of this problem with Department of Teaching and Learning colleague Lorena Llosa. "For high school English teachers in New York City, exit level assessments - or Regents exams - are their main concern. Teachers often give practice exams to help students prepare for these tests, but practice exams aren't designed to give instructionally useful feedback. They're simply essay writing tests that don't pinpoint specific difficulties students are having with their writing."
What Beck and Llosa want to do is develop a set of tasks that teachers can use with students at the very beginning of high school to pinpoint the writing challenges they face - whether it's developing a thesis statement or better organization or coherence. "The goal is to help teachers target their instruction so they can say 'I see a large number of my students are having trouble developing a thesis statement, let's work on that.'"
The Spencer Foundation, the Steinhardt Research Challenge Fund and an NYU Challenge Grant are funding the project. "We're in the first phase, talking to teachers and students and looking at samples of students' writing. We're also studying the high stakes tests themselves - not just the Regents exams but exit level exams in other states. We're looking at states with large populations of English language learners in particular because we want the results to be useful to teachers who teach both English dominant learners as well as students for whom English is a second language."
Several doctoral students are involved in the project, interviewing students and teachers, and helping with classroom observations and transcription of data. They are also assisting with analyzing tests from around the country. "They make a really good team," says Beck, "and I'm looking forward to their continued help as the study moves forward."
Beck is also preparing for another large study, which will explore ways of incorporating the development of thinking skills into the teaching of academic writing. "Growing evidence suggests that students who go on to college are not ready for college level writing tasks." One reason for this may be the pressure to prepare students for writing on high-stakes exit exams, which tend to emphasize basic criteria such as organization, grammar and appropriateness of language, rather than evidence of the kind of analytic and interpretive thinking that college instructors prize. "Although high school teachers value originality of thinking in essay writing, they don't necessarily have good ways to help students think towards a truly original thesis. I want to develop some approaches to teaching writing that help students think about the subjects they are meant to be thinking about. If I can do this, it will better prepare students for both high stakes exams and college writing."
In the meantime, Beck pours all her research directly into her teaching. "Right now I'm teaching a class on methods of teaching expository writing. Every week I go to class and share with my students something I've seen in the field as an example of what's going on in local schools." She points to Steinhardt's partnerships with New York City schools as a basis for such shared knowledge. "Steinhardt's partnership and host school initiative has us off to a good start. Some of the Department's classes are now even being taught in the schools. This means our student teachers have more in-depth experience with schools prior to actually starting their student teaching experience. Because I was a high school teacher myself, I think that experience is extremely important."