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Angry at Standardized Testing

The (Cyber) Bag of Weasels

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"About as much fun as a bag of weasels"...when I first saw this Irish adage, it made me think of the life of a writer: sometimes perilous, sometimes painful, certainly interesting. My paper journal has always been called "The Bag of Weasels." This is the Bag of Weasels' online home.

Angry at Standardized Testing

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When George W. Bush was president, he supported the landmark No Child Left Behind federal legislation that, among other things, required schools to document student achievement by way of standardized tests. As such, U.S. high school students must pass tests in English, math, and science in order to graduate; their scores are further used to measure school performance. Each state has a different set of tests. The tests are problematic for a number of reasons--as is using just standardized testing as a measure of school and student performance--but that is not the point of this post.

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!

  • I want to cry. But I am also furious. You should send that blog as a letter somewhere. But where?

  • You're absolutely correct. When I was growing up it was assumed that all children were biological children of the family. Being adopted always placed me on the outside looking in. Dick, Jane and Spot didn't really correlate to being the child of immigrants who were fleeing Nazi Germany. Gardening with Grandma? I didn't have a grandma - she died at Auschwitz. No garden - no home with land for such use until I was in my mid-teens. And I'm part of their target audience - white, middle-class and in the mid-continent.

    You raise extremely valid points in your post. The life experiences of those students who are being asked to take these tests is not white bread middle class Midwestern America.

    Oshun states that you should send your post in somewhere. I agree. I wonder if there would be a way to make a video and post it on You Tube. Having a variety of people reading portions of what you wrote (or showing examples that their lives aren't being mirrored by the terms of this test) would be powerful, have impact and it would be seen - potentially by millions. It maybe would make a substantive difference in future HSA tests.

    I'm angry right along with you - these tests are not testing the abilities of your students at all. The concepts are so foreign that there is no common ground upon which they can construct an appropriate response to the test questions.

    - Erulisse (one L)
    • A lot of my students have vast biological families. I have one student with something like 12 siblings, all living at home, including a set of infant triplets! o.O But the relationships are so much more complex than these stories make them out to be. Like I have students who are the primary caretakers of younger siblings, or who were taken care of by older siblings. To them, a story about sibling rivalry just doesn't click; Mom and Dad don't enroll them in activities that pit one sibling against the other, and they grow up leaning and depending on each other in the very hard environment in which they live. Few students live with both parents. Parents are often absent because of multiple jobs. Or the kid is being raised by an aunt, uncle, or grandmother. Half- and foster siblings abound.

      In one of the stories yesterday--the only story set in a city--the protagonist wants to start a community garden. So she marches home and tells Mom and Dad about her idea, and they rally behind her and help her get the idea off the ground. That is just not reality for most of my students.

      And I don't have to tell you what a slap in the face it must feel to kids who don't have biological families to never see that kind of life recognized as worth writing about. That breaks my heart. Would it kill them to include a story with a kid living in a foster home?

      It maybe would make a substantive difference in future HSA tests.

      The HSAs are going away very soon. But! They're being replaced by ... *drumroll* more standardized tests! *headdesk* We haven't seen them yet, but what discussion has been had about them so far is full of epic fail (i.e., 400 pages to print out about the assessments and only 1.5 pages about how they will accommodate kids with disabilities).
  • This hits close to me. I was lucky in high school - while I went to a school that is, at best, characterized as bad, I was a bookworm who read everything I could get and was familiar with words that never showed up in my daily life.

    But now that I'm in university, there's this sense of "I don't know any of this". No one ever stopped to explain what the differences between professor and associate professor were to us, I knew nothing about what a Dean was, I didn't even know what anthropology was before I arrived at university. Because at my high school, it was accepted that most students were not going to college and that most of the students are going to stay in the county, grow up to live in the town, and live a life of drugs and low paying jobs. I can remember taking standardized tests and wondering what world these kids came from, that their parents could take them on vacation somewhere exotic every summer.

    Last year, they had a 23% pass rate on the statewide Algebra I rate. Why? I don't know. All I know is that I firmly believe that standardized testing is biased as hell, that only allowing the 37% that made up the best and brightest to take the SAT was considered okay at my high school (and we still had the lowest composite score in the area), and that even for the kids that escape that, they're still going to be haunted by it years later because the basic educational system is based on the idea that everyone has the same upper middle class or higher upbringing.

    This has largely gotten off the topic of your rant, but know that I firmly agree with you.
    • I was a bookworm who read everything I could get and was familiar with words that never showed up in my daily life.

      But now that I'm in university, there's this sense of "I don't know any of this". No one ever stopped to explain what the differences between professor and associate professor were to us, I knew nothing about what a Dean was, I didn't even know what anthropology was before I arrived at university.

      You are totally echoing my experience here--two generations later! I knew about the Peloponnesian War, Latin grammar and had read just about everything on a list of so-called Great Books, but had no idea what happened once one showed up at a university. I had an aunt who went to a teachers college (when those were the equivalent of a trade school) and eventually over the course of a lifetime of teaching finally got a Masters in education. But she was the only person in our family before my older brother who ever went to school after high school.
    • (no subject) - dawn_felagund - Expand
  • I feel for you, I really do. And I wish more of 'your' kids could actually go on field trips with you and Bobby. It would help them so much...

    You might want to check this article out as well: http://articles.philly.com/2013-07-22/news/40709969_1_hallam-hurt-so-called-crack-babies-funded-study

    One of the blogs I follow on FB is Nursing Clio -- I highly recommend it if you don't 'like' it already. There are *many* excellent articles there.
    • Fascinating article--thank you!

      I have two students that I know of who are "crack babies." (I'm sure there are more, but this information often isn't known or shared.) Both are bright students. Both have serious emotional problems--but that's what my school is for, so that's no surprise! :) However, I would class both of them in probably the worst quintile for emotional problems out of the school.

      Both also live "in the system" in group homes. One was severely neglected as a child; his sister called Child Protective Services when he was four (she was seven, I think), and the four siblings in the family were split up after that and in the system ever since.

      It's impossible to separate out what causes their problems. These kids' lives are such messes, through no fault of their own. Any reasonable person would develop emotional problems.
  • That makes me sad and angry, but I don't know what to do.
    • Nor do I, except to do the best that I can for the students I can reach.

      If it were something deliberate, I'd actually have more hope than I do. But I suspect that whoever it is that makes these tests--including selecting the stories--has probably never realized that many of the students in Maryland who read those stories will not connect to them in any meaningful way or will even fail to understand them at all. I see myself in that; I didn't realize the differences between my own upbringing and life and the lives of kids who live in low-income Baltimore until I started working with those kids. It was eye-opening. The test makers would probably benefit from a couple of months at my school.
  • They're horrible and have so many things wrong with them.

    Dad's a non-testable subject teacher, so he's usually a human reader-- and he always comes home complaining because even the severely mentally disabled kids still have to take them. (Which is a different problem than what you're talking about, but still.)
    • Yes. Which has led to demonstrated instances of schools either pushing kids with disabilities into special schools (which is illegal if the least restrictive environment for that child is a regular public school) or even encouraging them to drop out of school. It's sick the awful and far-reaching effects these tests have had on all kids, but especially kids with disabilities.

      And now we're getting ready to switch to Common Core and a whole new set of standardized tests, and the kids with disabilities are so far left out in the cold again. Our school hosted a training last year on the new PARCC assessment for English. We had to print 400 pages of materials for the training. At the end was a document about accommodating students with disabilities. "Yes, this is what I was looking for!" I remember thinking.

      The document was a page and a half long. It asserted that accommodations for kids with disabilities would be built into the test itself.


      And when I attended a later webinar about the same test, the only examples of accommodations for kids with disabilities that they gave were for kids with vision impairments. Not to diminish the challenges these kids face, but providing a screen reader or higher contrast or a magnifier is a lot easier than accommodating a kid with mild dyslexia, severe ADHD, and emotional problems on a high-stakes test that requires him to devote three hours of highly focused attention to low-interest test materials.
  • Of today's HSA stories, every single one of them had nature as a key topic.

    Oh wow, they had to go with a theme, ignoring possible curriculum and such so that if school happened to have it on the curriculum the kids got lucky and otherwise too bad? What kind of system is that? Then at least make sure that the test has variation in texts that reflects the true life of kids, because I honestly doubt if normal kids are that much in nature these days as we were as kids..
    • And the HSA stories aren't supposed to be built around a theme! They're supposed to be diverse ... or I'd think they were, although I don't actually know anything about how they're selected.

      They seem to be getting worse. HSAs from 2005-2009 are available on the Web, and some of the stories are crap, but some of them are good enough that I use them in class to practice the test with. Now it seems like they're all the same and even more insipid than usual. I tell my students not to judge literature by the stories they see on the HSA! If this test is meant to spark interest in literature, it fails.
  • Perhaps you should make a list of what sort of literature might be significantly less biased (some amount of bias against somebody seems inevitable), and send that to whoever is responsible for setting these tests? Of course they might not listen, but then constructive suggestions might be useful too.

  • I'm sorry I got to the discussion late but this is one of my topics! Coming from a completely different approach at schooling, I'd like to ask what is the purpose of these tests and why the continual testing. And what's the meaning of standardized: obviously not taking average student of a certain place as a standard to design the test (I can't imagine canoe trips in France are standard holidays)!
    • I know I'm not Dawn, but as I understand it, it's supposed to offer a way of comparing students from all backgrounds and seeing where they are. In the US, public schools must have students take the tests in order to receive certain types of funding.

      The standardized therefore refers to the fact that the test is supposed to measure the same things in every student, in whatever school. For example, in many states it is required that the test start at the exact same time in every school. The problems with such a system should be obvious - by giving every student the same test, you get the examples that Dawn is talking about above, where students from one economic background are favored. It was bad enough taking standardized tests for entrance to college (such as the SAT and the ACT), but now standardized testing can take place almost every year of a student's life. New elementary school students starting this year in Indiana can look forward to taking the ISTEP every year from 3rd grade to 8th grade, as well as taking the course assessment tests are the end of Algebra I, English 10, and Biology I. The Algebra and English ones have to be passed to graduate. I would not be surprised if the state government adds more tests eventually.

      The end goal is to make sure that every student in the state knows the same things at the end.

      It's a mess. I went through that system, and all it gave me was a crippling fear that if I didn't pass a test, my entire school career would go down the hole. And I was one of the students labeled gifted - and in the end, those stupid tests were one of the reasons that I decided the entire system was designed to screw up and mess up lower class kids while letting the kids who could afford tutors and stuff pass through easily. Because I saw plenty of kids have to take the same class and the same test over and over again.

      The wikipedia page provides a list of effects (both positive and negative) that No Child Left Behind has been perceived to cause. The Washington Post did a blog post on the time students can spend on the tests themselves (not counting prep).

      It's just tiring.
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