This morning’s New York Times contains an essential, shocking article by Michael Winerip on the level of writing needed to earn a passing grade on New York State’s high school leaving exam. This year, for the first time, the exam has teeth: any student who doesn’t score at least 65 on the exam in English (and a few more subjects) will receive no diploma.

It’s always possible to come up with “sky is falling” articles by quoting samples of things students write. A few egregious examples do not prove a trend; and, after all, some poor student will always score at the bottom. But Winerip’s article is so telling because it cites the official scoring guide. And this is what the official guide gives as an example of writing that deserves a more-or-less passing grade (1 on a scale of 0 to 2):

These two Charater have very different mind Sets because they are creative in away that no one would imagen just put clay together and using leaves to create Art.

That’s no accident. Here’s another:

In the poem, the poets use of language was very depth into it.

Those are taken from short-answer sections of the test. There is also an essay question. The following sentence is from an essay response that is supposed to receive a 3 out of 6—good enough, combined with two “1s” on the paragraphs and a 20 out of 25 on the multiple choice, to pass the test:

Even though their is no physical conflict withen each other. Their are jealousy problems between each other that each one wish could have.

Students who write like this will be granted by the State of New York certificates that let them attend college. How many will graduate from college? How many will be well qualified for responsible jobs that don’t (or shouldn’t) require a college education: as an auto dealer, an office manager, a bank teller? But as Winerip notes, those designing the test felt they had to set the standards this low, since otherwise the non-graduation rate would be shocking. The problem is that giving diplomas to students who perform at this level is equally shocking. As Winerip notes, “[t]heoretically, passing the English Regents would mean that a student could read and write.”

No more than anyone else do I know of a magic formula for ensuring that every student will learn. But I know that imposing high-stakes tests on a failed educational system cannot be that formula. It won’t make students literate. It will just make the rest of us hypocrites. Actually, it already has.

[Cross-posted at The Reality-Based Community]

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Andrew Sabl is a Visiting Professor in the Program on Ethics, Politics, and Economics and in Political Science at Yale University.