Teaching to the test would work better if the tests were adequate

Wow, have you seen this article in the Washington Post?

Poet: I can’t answer questions on Texas standardized tests about my own poems

The author [Sara Holbrook] of source material on two Texas standardized tests says she can’t actually answer the questions about her own work because they are so poorly conceived. She also says she can’t understand why at least one of her poems — which she calls her “most neurotic” — was included on a standardized test for students.

The test writers made inexcusably careless errors, like asking about why the author divided a poem into stanzas at a particular point without formatting the poem correctly, so that there were no stanza breaks. Also, Holbrook makes the point, rather vehemently, that none of the answers about the author’s motivation make sense unless the question writers asked the author what her motivation actually was. She put the stanza break in to signal to herself where to take a breath when reading the poem aloud, not for any of the “artistic” reasons suggested by the answers.

The same year that “Midnight” appeared on the STAAR test (2013), Texas paid Pearson some $500 million to administer the tests, reportedly without proper training to monitor the contract. Test scorers, who are routinely hired from ads on (where else?), Craiglist, also receive scant training, as reported by this seasoned test scorer. I’m not sure what the qualifications are for the people who make up the questions, but the ability to ride unicorns comes to mind.

Now comes research that reveals that a simple demographic study of the wealth of the parents could have accurately predicted the outcomes, no desks or test packets needed.

Yeah, not surprised. I thoroughly detest Pearson’s My Math Lab online homework, and that’s for math, a far more straightforward topic than poetry. (The online homework is designed in a way that discourages students from working to actually understand the material; it is also designed so as to create test anxiety. Good job, Pearson!)

Almost all the time, when I am helping a student to prepare for a standardized test, it’s for math. I’m grateful for that, because as horrifically underprepared as many (most?) students are in math, at least math skills *are* straightforward, far more easily tested than this Why-did-the-author blah blah blah on the English section.

It reminds me of how critics seriously discuss all the deep motivations that might lead YA authors to kill off parents in the backstory, when often enough I suspect the only actual motivation is to cut down on the number of secondary characters so as to simplify writing the story. I know that’s often an important motivation for *me*.

Anyway, it’s a long article, but click through and take a look if you’ve got kids in the current school system. I do think testing is important, or at least assessment is important; but if the tests are terrible, assessment stops being hard and becomes hopeless.

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6 thoughts on “Teaching to the test would work better if the tests were adequate”

  1. I’m getting fond flashbacks to the outrage that sparked after The Giver got a sequel that proved conclusively what happened with the ambiguous ending. Apparently a number of English teachers had to change their curriculum around the book . . .

    On a personal note, I really hated that in the English/Creative Writing classes I took. My high school English class once had an amazing argument about a poem with a red wheelbarrow, where one of the smartest kids in the school was arguing it had no special meaning being red, it just was the color a wheelbarrow was.

  2. I’m reminded of Dorothy Heydt’s tale of Poul Anderson’s daughter bringing him a homework question: “I know why the author wrote the story: to make money. But what do I tell the teacher?”

    I suspect the writers mostly write because the stories want to be told, not to Send A Message; the English teachers are looking for deep meaning, which wasn’t put in deliberately. Not that it can’t be there, but a lot less purposefully than teachers seem to think.

    Aside from the quality of the poem…ahem… the carelessness of asking about stanza breaks without making sure the publication actually includes the stanza breaks just floors me. If it’s indicative of the care taken in the preparation of the test questions and answers.

  3. My sister was incredibly offended when her teacher got really analytical about Huckleberry Finn, since she felt it was in direct violation of the author’s wishes, as expressed in the introduction:

    “PERSONS attempting to find a motive in this narrative will be prosecuted; persons attempting to find a moral in it will be banished; persons attempting to find a plot in it will be shot.
    BY ORDER OF THE AUTHOR, Per G.G., Chief of Ordnance.”

    On the other hand, I liked Maggie Stiefvater’s explanation that sometimes, red does mean rage, etc.

  4. I think English teachers are often conditioned by classes focused on literary fiction, where everything is supposed to be oh-so-symbolic. But for genre writing, sometimes a wheelbarrow is red because wheelbarrows are red … I remember one teacher of ours insisting that Frodo was a Christ symbol and going to all this trouble to support this idea. I don’t believe we found her arguments especially persuasive.

    I’m sure *sometimes* red means rage — I think I’ve deliberately done something like that maybe once or twice, and of course other authors may be much more heavily into symbolism than I am. But most of my sympathy is with Poul Anderson’s daughter. Though I think she should have told her teacher: “Well, I asked my father, and he said…”

    And yes, messing up the formatting and then basing questions on the correct formatting is just beyond belief.

  5. The questions have gotten more ridiculous since I was in school, but in the third grade my class wasn’t taught to the test, we were taught how to take the tests. “Standardized tests have standardized answers,” my teacher used to say. We were getting lessons about how questions were structured, what kinds of things the question writers were looking for, answer distributions, and related stuff. The result of that is that I, and my classmates, were ace at standardized tests to the point where in later years I could score decently-to-high in topics I knew almost nothing about including languages I never studied.

    For instance, in the question regarding the stanzas, I would just look at the answers first. Not the poem, or even the question. The first words of each answer are compare, ask, contrast, and incorporate. Comparing and contrasting is 90% what they want so I would just eliminate the other two without even looking further. It would probably be contrast, because it’s easier to see how things are alike than different, but when looking at the subjects of the comparisons, schedules vs. feelings? Probably feelings because poetry. Also schedules don’t make you sound smart. I’d just mark C and move on.

    Isn’t that horrible? It was painful to even admit to this strategy. Obviously, if the question came from a good teacher I’d actually need to read the passage, but for a standardized test? We’ve all got better things to do.

    A bad side of this, besides it all being a useless waste of time from start to finish, is that through this testing I often got myself placed ahead into classes I was then woefully ill-prepared for.

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