Oregon | Learning With Less

Learning With Less: Can Teachers Afford To Assign Essays?

OPB | Feb. 22, 2012 11:05 a.m. | Updated: July 30, 2012 8:58 a.m. | Portland, OR

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Many Oregon high school teachers found themselves in a bind, recently, as first semester ended. The problem? Teachers have more students, and tight deadlines to get grades in. Today, OPB’s “Learning with Less” series asks this question: should teachers still require long essays, that take a long time to grade?

Rob Manning / OPB
David Douglas High School teacher Angela Nurre

Angela Nurre and Hyung Nam teach different subjects in different school districts. 
 
But they both teach four class sections with upward of 33 students apiece. That means they correct finals for more than 130 students. 

Their approaches differ significantly.

OPB has been checking in regularly with Angela Nurre this school year. She teaches Health and English at Oregon’s largest high school: David Douglas High, in east Portland.

“One of things I normally do on my final is an essay-type final, fill in the blank, short answer, short essays.” says Nurre.
 
Nurre says she didn’t do that this year.

“Across the board in the Health department, we just did multiple choice. It’s much easier to grade. You have kids testing Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, and grades are due Friday, you’ve got to get those grades, graded. It’s really almost impossible to do essay tests, grade them in a turnaround time of just three or four days, unless you want to take your work home and grade them for six hours each night.”
 

Hyung Nam probably wouldn’t say he wants to spend extra time grading papers. But he has taken a different approach in the American government and history classes he teaches at Portland’s Wilson High.

Nam often hauls stacks of student work to this coffee shop, near his house in Southeast Portland. He’s not interested in shifting away from long-form papers.

“The generic thing would be following the textbook, and using a multiple-choice test for the course, and it’s based on ‘you can’t think outside the box’ right? Questions are framed by the textbook makers for you to think about issues in one way, and there’s only one right answer,” says Nam.

Contrast that with the final assignment Nam gave his government students: 

Hyung Nam: “Analyzing the federal government budget –what the federal government spends money on, and how the federal government raises revenue. And not only an analysis, a cost-benefit analysis of the federal priorities for the economy, but had to make an argument about how to change spending priorities.”
 

Nam says students handed in papers up to 15 pages long. So how long did it take him to correct all that?

“It took me I think maybe nine days – well, I had that, and then two finals from my US History classes, so it took me nine days to grade not only those finals, but the last set of assignments and portfolio self-assessments.” 
 

Nam pushed Portland Public Schools’ grading deadline about as far as it could go this month. 

District officials agree with Nam that there’s value to long-form projects. They say the increased workload is a product of a reduced budget – which resulted from state funding cuts.

Nam scaled back last semester’s final paper from previous years. He says he’ll scale back more, this term.

“Yes, I’m already thinking about what I need to cut, and what’s the most essential thing that I need to teach this semester.” 
 

Rob Manning / OPB
Angela Nurre

Back at David Douglas High, Angela Nurre is also worrying about the results of her assessments. She says her students are struggling.

“I had more kids fail in every class that I’ve ever failed, that I can remember ever failing. I’m used to maybe three or four kids getting D’s and F’s. And I had eight, nine, and ten, in every single class. It just shocked me,” says Nurre. 
 

David Douglas officials say teachers handed out almost 20 percent more D’s and F’s last semester than they did a year ago. 

Angela Nurre is also planning changes. She says in her struggle to manage instruction for her bigger classes, she cut back on individual attention. She’s re-thinking that. 
 

“So if I can just somehow find time every three or four weeks, to eyeball kids, ‘This is your grade, this is where you are, we need to get it up’ – and keep doing that throughout the semester, hopefully they’ll stay more on track, and I would see less of them wind up with D’s and F’s by the end. That would be the one thing I would change,” says Nurre. 
 

Nurre says her load has gotten a little lighter, this term. She says there are four or five fewer students in each class. David Douglas officials say that every year, at least 300 of the high school’s nearly 3,000 students leave – though it’s not clear why, or where they’ve gone. Enrollment is down about 180 students, so far this year.

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