We Interrupt the Regularly Scheduled Program to Bring You this Important Message

For a few days last week I sat at my desk working on a blog post about reading poetry as New York City’s third through eighth graders sat at their desks, aligned in rows, to endure the three-day marathon known as the New York State English Language Arts Test. What happened on one of those days made the headlines after hundreds, if not thousands, of New York eighth graders took to their cellphones and computers to trade jokes, bewilderment and facebook postings about one of the reading passages and the multiple choice questions that went with it. Social media, it seems, was causing another uprising.

For those of you who don’t already know, the passage in question was a parody of an Aesop fable called “The Pineapple and the Hare,” which was taken out of context from Daniel Pinkwater‘s book Borgel and, according to the author, “edited out of any resemblance to what I wrote.” Pinkwater, who’s also the author of any number of hilarious and anarchic books, says that the story was meant to be nonsensical. He describes it as a fractured fairy tale told by an old man to his young nephew to prepare the boy for the even greater absurdity of discovering that God is an orange popsicle. In this way, you could say the story had a purpose within the bigger context of the book. But losing that context, it became even more absurd as it morphed into an exam text—or as Pinkwater puts it, “It’s nonsense on top of nonsense on top of nonsense.”

The nonsense was furthered by Pearson, the testing Goliath responsible for the exam, who reused the story in at least seven states over seven years, despite the fact that it left most everyone in those states as dumfounded by the story’s pointlessness as it did in New York. Pearson has said that it included the passage “as a way of comparing student performance among states.” But how do you compare meaningless answers to meaningless questions about a meaningless text in a meaningful way? Beats me—though I have to wonder if the passage wouldn’t have been recycled if school children had the kind of lobbyists Pearson has.

On the positive front, though, what all this has done is shed light on the insanity of judging students, teachers and schools by a standardized test. And it’s sparked a loud outcry among parents and educators. Brooklyn Prinicpal Liz Phillips, for instance, wrote a letter to the New York State Education Commissioner to urge him to review the tests because she believes the pineapple passage wasn’t just an aberration but an example of exams that are “deeply flawed.” Others have been making the argument that given how much rides on these tests—student promotions, teachers’ careers, and in some cases a school’s very survival—they should be made as public and transparent as the scores that are published in the papers, so that everyone can judge the tools being used to judge so many lives.

Of course, for many of us this is nothing new. For years we’ve known the limits of standardized tests to measure anything of real, lasting value. And we’re all too familiar with the way they can zap the joy out of teaching and learning. But I want to believe that the tide might be turning. Over the last few months, for instance, I’ve read any number of wonderful articles that both pre-date this latest fiasco and speak to the need to reclaim the teaching of reading and writing from the clutches of standardized test makers. And to keep the momentum of this tide growing, I share below links to four of my favorites in the hopes that they’ll inspire and empower you in the face of the deadening tests—or at least let you feel that you’re not alone, which is what good writing can do.

First up is “Dear Governor: Lobby to Save a Love of Reading” by a New York City couple who, in their attempt to turn their third grade son’s practice ELA test homework into a New Year’s Eve parlor game, discover the limits of multiple choice questions to capture what a text is “mostly about.”

The same couple, Anne Stone and Jeff Nichols, also wrote “A Lesson in Teaching to the Test, From E. B. White.” Drawing on a wonderful passage from White’s The Trumpet of the Swan, their piece reminds us that ultimately questions are as important as answers and that true teaching is about supporting and nurturing a child’s curiosity and thinking.

Coming from the Washington Post‘s blog The Answer Sheet, “Teacher: Dear Students, I’m sorry about the test I made you take,” is a letter of apology from veteran teacher Ruth Ann Dandrea to her 8th grade students who she applauds for answering an either/or question on a test with “Honestly, I think it’s both.”

And finally, from Education Nation’s The Learning Curve blog, there’s “Is ‘Accountability’ Undermining American Education?” by Carol Dwek, which looks at the dangers of fixed versus growth mindsets. She also shares the priceless wisdom of an Indian educator who, after hearing about our high-stakes testing culture, sagely explains that in India “when we want the elephant to grow, we feed the elephant. We don’t weigh the elephant.”

Now go feed the children in your care with real reading and writing. I’ll be back next week with that post about poetry.

10 thoughts on “We Interrupt the Regularly Scheduled Program to Bring You this Important Message

  1. Thanks…very clever. I wrote about how these heavily edited tests are intellectually dishonest as well on my blog.
    I was delighted to read that Pinkwater, as always, has put the authorities back on their heels!

    • “Teach the Book,Touch the Heart” was on my shortlist of articles to link to, as well, and I love how you used it to point out the intellectual dishonesty in tests. I’ve spent some time this week looking at the sample ‘units’–a.k.a. curriculum exemplars–on the engageny.org website (I’m assuming they’re from David Coleman’s group Student Achievement Partner, but don’t know that for sure). And while the passages are certainly better than the ones on state tests, the ‘text-based’ questions were merely standardized test-style questions without a choice of answers, which means they’re checking comprehension and telling students what to look for, not helping them become independent meaning makers, which is simply too messy a process to package with right- or-wrong-answer questions. And packaging a product, not empowering teachers and students unfortunately seems the point.

  2. Thank you for this post for several reasons. First, for pointing out so well the absurdity of measuring important things with tests like these. Second, for pulling together parts of this story (the social media aspect with the wonderful Pinkwater quotes and the response by Pearson) for someone who doesn’t have the time to do that on his own right now. And third, for recognizing that inspiration and passion and connection with others are the daily bread of teaching.

  3. I like to tell the teachers and principals I work with “Weighing the pig does not make it grow.” And, by the “weigh”, I’d like to know who Pearson is accountable to.

  4. It is amazing that teachers are evaluated by tests scores when the NYS 8th grade math test had a question that did not even have a correct choice with it. Maybe we should evaluate the people who make the test.

    • And the fifth grade math test apparently had two questions that students were told to disregard because they didn’t make sense. I’m just hoping that all this press (including Gail Collins’s piece that I link to in another comment) wakes everyone up to the fact that we risk losing our schools to corporations.

  5. Pingback: It Was the Best of Times, It Was the Worst of Times: Some Reflections on the Year | To Make a Prairie

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