Saturday, March 6, 2010

Test-Score Tyranny

When I last wrote, I set off quite the stir, and by quoting some in my department, I may have created an irreparable rift. To recap, I had suggested the department read one another’s Shakespeare essays and after assessing them together, give an award for the best of the essays. According to lists I generated at the end of last year, I could see that most of my colleagues teach at least one of the plays or sonnets and most of them require that their students write essays about their reading, so I honestly thought that reading what we ourselves generate in our classes would be compelling and instructive for us all. Unfortunately, this suggestion ended up revealing the emotional temperature of a  beleaguered faculty, where any suggestion can sound like extra work, though I maintain no extra work and no harm was intended. 
I bring this up because right after I emailed the essay contest suggestion to the department, we received not only those benchmark tests that I have complained about in previous entries, but we received an additional test to give to our students: a diagnostic for the California Exit Exam (CAHSEE).  Now we have to take at least six hours (roughly a full week) out of our class time to accommodate these tests and suspend whatever we are teaching. In addition, we will have to carve out some class time to give standards tests preparation exercises, and we will have to deal with altered and diminished schedules in order to accommodate the roughly three weeks of CAHSEE testing that awaits the students this term. 
Now we will have at least two department meetings spent on assessing the benchmark and diagnostic essays. But before we read any of the essays, we will first have to determine appropriate grading criteria since none of the rubrics or after-the fact “Decision Rules,” designed "to guide us as we assess the quality of the work," are ever adequate for assessing ACTUAL student writing.  
Yes, this assessing our students’ writing is the exact task I had suggested in my Shakespeare contest email, but in this case the faculty dread has been fulfilled: we now face extra and irrelevant work--both proctoring these tests and grading the results--and have to deal with one more district obstruction of any progress we hope to make in our classes. 
The problem with the CAHSEE diagnostic essay is that in addition to presuming that students know something about global warming, green thinking, energy conservation, the essay prompt itself is confusing in that it seems to at first ask the students to talk about how to conserve energy; then it asks them to use examples and anecdotes to persuade other students to conserve energy. The prompt is so overwritten that its intention is unclear, and it seems to have garnered two kinds of response from the students: “Listen to me! Here’s why” essays and “Here’s how to conserve energy” essays; one persuasive, the other expository. So how are we to assess these essays? Do we just look for good, clear, thorough writing, or do we hold students accountable for reading carefully a prompt that was, to my way of thinking, not written carefully?
What is perhaps most vexing about the “assessment” tests, the other tests to which we treated our students to this week, is not only the low benchmark they set, at least in English, but how often these tests are wrong-headed and just plain wrong. This problem is in keeping with why NCLB is not working: when states and districts set their own standards and essentially lower standards to punch up scores, the tyranny of these scores, which are spun as a district’s attempt at progress, only hinders progress.
Here is a quick “benchmark” minute brought to you by one of my astute 10th graders (and I am not even going to mention how stupidly the question itself is written!). The students are first given a quotation from a previous reading (and I am not going to mention the problems with that reading either!):  
Now here is the actual question:
"Even ladies were wading in the water, thinking it was fun." 
To delete "thinking it was fun" from the quotation above, what would be the correct way to punctuate the sentence?
a) "Even the ladies were wading in the water [   ]."
b) "Even ladies were wading in the water:"
c) "Even ladies were wading in the water--"
d) "Even the ladies were wading in the water. . ."
Before you give your answer, read this explanation of the ellipsis, which I pulled from a GOOGLE search:
The MLA Handbook recommends using square brackets on either side of the ellipsis points to distinguish between an ellipsis that you've added and the ellipses that might have been in the original text. Such a bracketed ellipsis in a quotation would look like this:
"Bohr […] used the analogy of parallel stairways […]" (Smith 55).
Now read this direct quotation from the MLA Handbook (6th Edition):
Some instructors prefer that square brackets be placed around ellipsis points inserted into quotations, so that all alterations within quotations are indicated by brackets (cf. 3.7.6).
Given these rules, what's the correct answer for students who were taught to err on the side of caution and add the brackets around all ellipses they add to any quotation?  There doesn’t seem to be any correct answer among the choices they were given, though the choices seem to allude to the MLA rule by offering an answer with empty brackets and an answer with only an ellipsis. 
Here is my question: If I taught the MLA rule in the interest of college prep. and told my students to err on the side of caution and use brackets when in doubt, am I a bad teacher? Are the students then incorrect for adding brackets when they insert their own ellipses? Of course, the students figured out the issue and opted for answer D, but they were definitely confused.
Then there was this question:
The students were asked to pick the “correct way to rewrite this sentence”: 

“The event remains one of the deadliest natural disasters has occurred in United States history.”  
Here are two of the choices they were given:
  1. The event remains one of the deadliest natural disasters, which has occurred in United States history.
  2. The event remains one of the deadliest natural disasters that has occurred in United States history.
I have no quarrel with B as the best answer, but in explaining why B is the best answer, the Administration and Scoring Manual, which teachers are to use in order to teach to the standard that this question is presumably testing, offers the following explanation (NOTE THAT I USED A NON-RESTRICTIVE CLAUSE, OR DID I?):
A--The clause “has occurred in United States history” is nonrestrictive so it cannot be introduced by which, which introduces restrictive clauses.
B--That is used to introduce nonrestrictive main clauses.
UH, WHAT?!?!?!?!?!?!?! 
Keep in mind that there were only 19 questions on this  benchmark test, so possibly missing two of the 19 can hurt a student’s score. In addition, wrong answers can cast aspersions on a teacher’s ability to teach a certain standard since both questions relate to the same Language Conventions strand, as they call it. 
So, I say yes, let’s spend valuable collegial time looking closely at our students’ earnest work generated by these bogus instruments, then let’s publish the scores and feel like failures because of tests that PRETEND to test kids on what they have learned, but instead confuse everyone and ignore the real grist of any English class--literary analysis, critical thinking, correct mechanics, in-depth reading comprehension. In such a budget crisis time, a district’s giving boat loads of money to the company that creates these tests, specifically the bogus benchmarks, and demanding that their teachers pander to such imprecision and confusion is not good for anyone! Yet all this testing will be effective in one thing, that's for sure: the erosion of everyone’s good will, the teachers’ and the students'.


  1. Ms. Felcher,
    I'm just here to keep tabs on your editing/proof-reading skills... (or should it be[...]?)
    When you introduce the "greatest natural disasters in US history" question, you thoughtfully provide the sample question:
    "The event remains one of the deadliest natural disasters has occurred in United States history.”
    After natural disasters, should there not be a "that" before the word "has"? If the way you wrote the question is indeed the way it was provided to students on the test, it would be quite a shame indeed.

  2. Yes. That was how the question was written. That's the SHAME of it.