Some Thoughts on March Madness (and I Don’t Mean Basketball)

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The New York State Common Core English Language Arts Assessments will be upon us in a few weeks, and this year they arrive against a backdrop of controversy over the use of standardized tests. More parents than ever have joined the opt-out movement, refusing to allow their children to submit to tests whose validity they question. Diane Ravitch has called for congressional hearings on the misuse and abuse of high-stakes standardized tests. And many states, including New York, have decided to slow down implementation of the Common Core and its tests, because as a Huffington Post education blog post states, “in far too many states, implementation has been completely botched.”

Whatever the ultimate fate of the Common Core assessments are, this year’s tests are going on as scheduled, and teachers are struggling over how to best prepare the students in their care, which has not been easy. Many schools around the country, for instance, adopted packaged reading programs that claimed to be aligned to the Standards and the tests as a way of hedging their bets, with New York City going so far as to commission a few key publishers to develop programs0 to the City’s specifications. Yet having now seen some practice tests, many teachers feel that these programs haven’t adequately prepared students for these tests. And they’re not alone in thinking this.

Sleuth CoverAccording to a recent Education Week blog post—whose title “Boasts about Textbooks Aligned to the Common Core a ‘Sham’ says it all—these programs should be viewed with caution as few, if any, live up to their claims. Many, as the blog post points out, have recycled material from older, non-Common-Core-aligned programs, such as Pearson’s ReadyGen, which uses the magazine Sleuth from its old Reading Street program for close reading practice on texts that don’t really seem close reading worthy. Others, such as Scholastic Codex, are so overly scaffolded—with teachers repeatedly directed to “assist students in understanding”—that it’s hard to see how students are being prepared for higher order independent thinking.

Meanwhile the practice tests provided by Curriculum Associates’s Ready test prep program, which most city schools are using, are insanely hard. Sixth graders, for example, most of whom have had no exposure to chemistry, must read a speech given by Madame Curie about the discovery of radium. The passage contains much content-specific science vocabulary, and while some of the words are defined for students as you’ll see below (underlining mine), the definitions seem as incomprehensible as the words in the passage themselves.

Madame Curie Speech

Meanwhile seventh graders are subjected to an excerpt from Charles Dicken’s Oliver Twist, poems by Keats and Yeats, and a speech by Ronald Reagan commemorating the 40th anniversary of D-Day, which seventh graders won’t learn about until eighth grade (provided, of course, that amid all this test prep, there’s still room for social studies).

With these texts, traditional test prep strategies don’t really seem to help. Process of elimination, for instance, will only take you so far on tests where more than one multiple choice answer seems completely plausible. And telling students to “make sure you understand the question before choosing an answer” seems almost laughable when the questions and answer choices are like the following:

Hybrid word question

But what’s really disturbing is that the Ready instructional test prep workbook doesn’t seem to help either. It’s organized in sections that correlate to individual Standards and skills—summarizing informational texts, analyzing text structure, determining point of view, etc.—but the workbook’s texts, questions and tips seem absurdly simplified when compared to the company’s practice tests. Here, for instance, is how the test prep workbook for seventh grade talks about point of view:

Analyzing Point of View

And here is a point of view question from a seventh grade practice test on a text called “Country Cousin/City Cousin” that consists of two sections with different narrators who, though dialogue, not only express their perspective but their cousin’s as well:

Narrator POV Question

The workbook suggests that a point of view is synonymous with a character’s perspective, which can be conveyed through dialogue, thoughts and actions; yet this test question requires students to think of point of view only as a narrative stance, which isn’t covered in the workbook. And even if they did get that, every answer except A seems plausible, since they more or less say the same thing. But only D is correct.

Maurice Sendak Cropped

From Open House for Butterflies by Ruth Krauss and Maurice Sendak

So, once again, what’s a teacher to do? Aware of the problems inherent in both the packaged programs and test prep materials, the teachers from a middle school I work with and I decided to take a different tack. At each grade level, we invited a small group of students who’d just finished a few passages from a practice test to talk with us about how it went. The point was not to discover who had the right answer or not, but to hear specifically what the students found challenging and how they, as readers and test takers, tried to deal with those challenges.

What the students said was enormously enlightening, as it gave us a window on how students were thinking, not just what they thought. (The confusion over what was meant by point of view, for instance, emerged during one of these talks.) And after listening carefully to what the students said and considering the instructional implications, we were able to come up with a few tips and strategies that specifically addressed what students found challenging and how some had overcome that.

test-prep-strategies-©

We also noticed that the students were fascinated in how their classmates thought through their answers, so we also designed a new test prep practice. Rather than having the students practice simplified skills in the workbook or go over the answers to a practice test to find out which answer was right, we broke the students into groups, assigned each group a multiple-choice passage from a practice test they’d taken, and gave them a piece of chart paper. Their task was to first talk about the passage itself—what was easy, what was hard and why—then compare their answers, looking for questions for which they’d made different choices. Next each student explained to the group how and why they their answer they had—in effect, making a claim for an answer and supporting it with evidence from the text. And after listening to each other, they debated the answer and voted on one, recording their thinking on the chart paper. Then, and only then, did we consult the answer key.

Not only did the students find this more engaging than the worksheets and reviews, they also benefited from hearing how their classmates figured things out, which they could then try to do, too. Of course, it will be a while before we know how successful this approach was or not. But I have to believe that sharing the various ways different students solved the challenges these passages and questions posed was better than just reviewing the right answers. And in the meantime, I’ll keep my fingers crossed that the powers that be will listen to parents and teachers as attentively as we listened to these students and bring an end to all this testing madness.

Stop the Madness

More Thoughts on Craft and Those Pesky Test Questions

CRAFTAfter reading my last post on craft, a friend and colleague emailed me saying how amused she was by the fact that I’d used the phrase ‘make no bones’ in the same sentence in which I’d compared close reading to a mouse dissection. I had, indeed, purposely chosen the simile to evoke the sense of desecration I think happens when we over-analyze a text. But the phrase ‘make no bones’ had just popped into my head, and I used it with no awareness that it echoed the lab mouse dissection until she’d pointed it out. Put another way, I didn’t consciously choose that phrase to create the effect she experienced, though I was tickled by what she’d noticed. And this reminded me of a quote from Samuel Johnson that speaks to the relationship between writers and readers: “A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.”

I think this is true for the simple reason that a writer’s words on a page are inert until a reader’s mind brings them to life. And while I do believe that writers make choices about words, details, images, and structure in order to convey what they’re trying to exploring, there’s also something intuitive and uncanny about the process, with writers making unconscious decisions as well as conscious ones as they craft a text. And that opens the door for readers to see even more than the writer might have intended and to come up with a range of interpretations about the words on the page.

Notice and NoteKylene Beers and Robert Probst address this very point in their new book Notice & Notewhere they share an anecdote about the poet and playwright T.S. Eliot. A literary critic who’d seen one of his plays thought the play director had misinterpreted Eliot’s meaning. Eliot agreed that the production conveyed something different than what he’d intended, but he wasn’t really troubled by that. “‘But if the two meanings are contradictory,'” the critic asked, “‘is  not one right and the other wrong. Must not the author be right?'” Eliot replied: “‘Not necessarily, do you think? Why is either wrong?'”

This anecdote suggests that, despite his connection with New Criticism, the literary theory behind the Common Core, Eliot believed that multiple interpretations can, indeed, co-exist and that in the end the writer’s intentions don’t necessarily carry more weight than a reader’s interpretation. And this raises some interesting questions about all those “Why did the author include X in line Y” multiple-choice questions on New York State’s tests.

More questions are raised by the memoirist Patricia Hampl who, in her essay “The Lax Habits of the Free Imagination,” looks at the fallacy and the presumption of those author purpose questions. In the essay she recounts the experience of having an excerpt of a memoir she wrote appear in a college anthology that she, herself, had used in classes. Initially delighted to be included, she had an unexpected and uncomfortable reaction when she received the new edition in which her excerpt appeared and saw the questions that accompanied the piece. “And there, at the end of the selection,” she writes,

in those shivery italic letters reserved for especially significant copy, were the study questions. There were several under the heading “Questions About Purpose.” One will do: “Why does Hampl establish her father’s significance to the family before she narrates the major incident?” Beats me, I thought.

I had no idea what Hampl’s purpose was. All the study questions looked quite mad to me.

These ‘quite mad’ questions are, of course, precisely the kind that appeared on this year’s tests, with four possible answers for students to choose from, only one of which was deemed right. And they’re also the kind of questions that appear on the new Teacher Performance Assessments that Pearson has developed for edTPA, the organization that will be testing pre-service candidates to see if “a new teacher is ready for the job.” Here’s the first paragraph of one of the passages from the sample literacy skills test online:

Gertrude Stein Passage

And here’s the kind of question that’s asked. As in Hampl’s case, one will do:

Gertrude Stein Question

Picasso Portrait of Gertrude SteinThe repetition of the phrase does suggest some intention on the part of the author, but none of those answers seemed ‘right’ to me–including B, which the answer link said was correct. None, for instance, captured my sense that in her own unique and unconventional way, Gertrude Stein had a well-rounded life that was full of friends that were like a family, which might only have been possible because her family was prosperous. And none were connected to other details I’d noticed about her father, which suggested to me that she was repeating in reverse the journey that he had made. And when I re-read the passage, as close readers are supposed to do, I found myself thinking that the repetition had less to do with Gertrude Stein than with the idea that’s embedded in the title: that we cannot predict or control the future because we live in a world that’s disordered, in which the unthinkable happens. But that wasn’t one of the options.

One thing for sure, though, the question and answers forced me to abandon all the thinking I was doing and instead try to guess what the test-makers were thinking. And at that point I stopped being a reader and became a test-taker instead.

This has all made me think that when it comes to craft we might do better by remembering that readers and writers are both engaged in fitting details together to build meaning, with the writer ‘crafting’ the story out of details and the reader then using the details the writer’s chosen to ‘craft’ an interpretation. Any interpretation should be considered valid as long as it’s supportable by the details of the text, even if it veers from the writer’s intention. Most writers I know would agree with that because they respect and value the magic that happens when the words they’ve written interact with the mind of a reader. But one has to wonder what edTPA wants when they think that what demonstrates a teaching candidate’s readiness to become a teacher is the ability to second-guess the test-makers’ interpretations, which is what those answers are. What students really need are teachers who know how to help them craft their own ideas from the details the writer’s crafted the text from.

Fitting Pieces Together