Angry at Standardized Testing
In Maryland, we have the High School Assessments, or HSAs. Maryland high school students must pass tests in English, Algebra & Data Analysis, and Biology (this year's incoming ninth graders must also pass a test on U.S. Government). The HSAs are given four times per year. This week is the summer administration. Today was the English test.
Teachers generally proctor in their subject area, so I was a proctor today, as I have been for just about every English HSA since I started teaching. I generally get assigned to a student who is allowed a human reader, so I am very familiar with the English HSA by now. (Actually, anyone can look at past tests here.) The English test generally contains about a half-dozen short fiction or non-fiction pieces that the students must read and answer questions about. I usually end up reading these to at least one student.
When I was in high school myself, I heard a lot about test bias with tests like the SAT. I had trouble wrapping my brain around how that could be. I remember the example being given once with a question containing the word regatta with the point that students from certain backgrounds are unlikely to be familiar with that word, while for students from other backgrounds, it is commonplace or at least familiar. But I remember thinking that was a stretch, and most SAT questions seemed pretty unbiased.
Well now I teach kids from "certain backgrounds," meaning largely urban, African American, and low-income. And now, in the HSA stories that I read ad nauseum to my students, I see what critics of standardized testing meant when they spoke of bias.
Of today's HSA stories, every single one of them had nature as a key topic. Now, I love nature, as is abundantly obvious to anyone who knows me. But here is the reality for my students: By the time they sit for their first try at the English HSA at the end of the tenth grade--because almost none of our kids pass it the first time--many of them will have been out of the Baltimore metro area no more than a handful of times. Bobby organizes a lot of field trips for out students, and one of the things he tries to do is to get them out of the Baltimore metro area. We took a group snowboarding this winter, and we'll go hiking or to parks. We are running a photography club this summer, so we go to a park near the school a lot during club time. The students are fascinated with the most banal natural phenomena. The last time we went on a hike, I had to nearly peel some of my students off an enclosure at the park's nature center that contained a possum; they'd never seen a possum before. Or toads, or snakes, or rabbits, or just about any kind of butterfly. Every spring, we get a family of Canada geese around the school. I once had the following conversation with one of my brighter students about these geese:
Student: Hey, Ms. W-T, did you see those ducks? I'm going to steal one of the babies.
Me: I really, really don't recommend that. Canada geese can be mean to start with and are going to be really protective of their babies.
Student: Don't worry, Ms. W-T. I can run really fast.
Me: . . . Student, they can fly.
Student: Yo, that shit can fly?!
My coworkers and I have a good laugh over this anecdote (especially the "Yo, that shit can fly?!") but the point remains that one of my brighter students didn't. know. that. geese. can. fly.
If a student doesn't know that geese can fly, then how in the world is he going to connect to a test full of stories about things like canoeing trips and tree seeds and rock climbing?
In one of the poem's in today's test, an image was used of pressing a clover into a book. This makes three assumptions: 1) that the student lives in a house where books are kept, 2) that the student lives in an area with enough green space that he will be familiar with things like crawling around looking for four-leaf clovers, and 3) that the student has an adult or some other person in his life to pass along the tradition of pressing four-leaf clovers and other interesting finds into the pages of a book. Without these things--and I'd say that most of my students have none of them--this image makes about as much sense as if I wrote a poem and told you that I put a hickory nut in an ice cream maker. You're probably familiar with those items in at least a passing sense, but how they might fit together or what deeper meaning can be gleaned from that connection is probably a mystery. (Answer: They don't actually fit together. Putting a hickory nut in an ice cream maker would make a lot of noise, but that's about it.)
The latter--"the student has an adult or some other person in his life"--is another issue I have with the test. Most of the stories contain as a theme the affection between family members. Today's test had two stories about kids bonding with their dads and one about a kid and her grandmother and another about sibling rivalry. And again, this is not reality for a lot of my students, who come from broken homes and/or live in "the system," either in foster or group homes. (When I was telling the geese-can-fly anecdote to some of my colleagues, one of them pointed out that this student changes placements every few months and so probably has never been in a home long enough to do things like take trips to places where he could see things like geese flying.) And these stories never represent kids living in non-traditional homes. What, kids in group homes don't plant gardens??
As I read these stories to my students--and the stories are almost inevitably boring, insipid, and sentimental, but that is a rant for another time--I have a little mental commentary running in my head. "He probably doesn't know what that is. He's probably never heard that word before. He's probably never seen that before." And with this, the realization that a kid from a neighborhood like where I grew up or live now would almost certainly not have those problems.
It is grossly unfair to me. My students are already at a disadvantage. They were abused, neglected, shuffled from home to home, abandoned, unloved, exposed to lead paint, exposed to drugs in utero, exposed to drugs in their everyday lives, witnesses to violence, underfed, shuffled from school to school, and undereducated. They come to me at a sixth-grade reading level and unable to write a complete sentence and have to push as hard as they can to keep up with a high school curriculum. And the tests they have to pass to receive their diplomas requires them to take what skills and abilities they have been able to scrounge together over the years of their short but difficult lives and apply them to stories that might as well be handpicked to be understood by and appeal to kids from privileged backgrounds.
Every single story that I read today was such a story. And it doesn't have to be that way. Much of world literature describes cultures that would be equally unfamiliar to a rich kid from Howard County as to a poor Baltimore kid in a "level 5" school. And call me biased, but the whole genre of speculative fiction seems ideal for use with students from diverse backgrounds, since a story set on another planet or in an invented fantasy universe is familiar to no one.
This morning, on the drive to school, Bobby and I were making fun of the stupid stories on the HSA tests, but our "making fun" had an angry edge to it. After all, we watch our students fail these tests over and over again, knowing that the tests are written so that, while most students are demonstrating their understanding of language and literary concepts, our students are simply struggling to understand the very basics of what is going on in the story. Bobby suggested that this latest test would have a story about "making pancakes with Grandma." I added, "And a story about going and hanging out by a river with Dad."
Well, there was a story about gardening with Grandma, and another about taking a canoe trip down a river in rural France with Dad. Should I laugh or should I cry.
This post was originally posted on Dreamwidth and, using my Felagundish Elf magic, crossposted to LiveJournal. You can comment here or there!