Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Testing, Testing

A few weeks ago I had the dubious honor--or should that be horror?--of scoring tenth-grade practice CAPT (CT Academic Performance Tests) for my town's two high schools. The segment I scored was "Reponse to Literature." Students were asked to read a long short story and respond to four related general prompts. The purpose was to discern whether students comprehended the story, could make lucid connections between the story and real life/other literature or media, could make an argument about the story's literary merit using specific examples from the text, and could demonstrate a development of thought through the process of writing the four prompts. The volunteer scorers were trained, and quite a few of them didn't need training because they had already been scoring for many years.

The whole event was hy-larry-us. I found it delightful and will surely go back next year and do it again. It was a real eye-opener for me, because I had never done this type of scoring before. I had to adhere strictly to a specific, different rubric which did not permit me to consider any of the usual metrics for writing: no spelling, no mechanics, no grammar. Only the development and depth of thought in the responses were to be judged. This was completely antithetical to the things I had to do when I was a university English instructor. It was challenging and fun at the same time. In addition, I got to find out just what the schools are going expect my sons to do when they're in tenth grade. [smile]

The range of responses ran the gamut and were to be given points ranging from one to six, with one being the lowest. (Several times I lamented that we were not permitted to deliver a ZERO score.) Two volunteers read each test; if their respective scores diverged by more than one point (say, one scorer called it a 3 and the other a 5), then a third reader--one of the long experienced people--was called in to mediate. For example, I scored one test a 1 and the second reader gave it a 3. That reader was a retired teacher who gave it to a third reader, who gave it a 2. The retiree pulled me out into the hall trying to persuade me that I was being much too harsh and that I should never give a student a 1 because "it sends a message of dismal failure to the student and will not help him progress as a writer. We want them to have hope that they can do better and have the means to get there, not destroy their egos." He threw out my score and kept the others. I was also told that as long as they have made so much as a henscratch on a page, they must receive credit. Had I drawn that test from the pile again, I would still have given it a 1, regardless of mister's caveat. It was a frigging 1, dammit.

Oh, yadda, yadda, yadda! I am SICK of this platform of passing them along and "building their self-esteem" no matter what. "Hello!!! I'm functionally illiterate, but I have great self esteem!" When you pass them along, they don't learn to what extent they've screwed up; neither do the teacher and curriculum committee get appropriate feedback that the current process may not be working and that there may be a different approach for this student or the whole class. I ask you. When a kid has four full pages of writing to fulfill and only writes two sentences on a single page and completely ignores the rest of the test and hasn't shown any evidence that s/he even read the story in the first place, that is a ONE and should be a ZERO. (Let's see--linking clauses with "and" much? Hemingway's got nothing on me. But I digress.) A zero. Period. The kid should go cry in a corner, straighten up, and try harder to demonstrate some mental presence on the "real" test. How lucky they are that they get a "practice" before the "real" thing! Back in my day, you know, back when we had to pay someone for the privilege of walking ten miles through the snow to school on bloody stumps for feet, we got one chance and one chance only, and if we blew it, we blew it and heard about it.

Oh, WHY did I get started on this? Somebody shoot me off my soap box. It's getting taller by the minute.

And don't even let me mention how all of this testing is only necessary because The Decider (that guy who was reading a picture book--his level--when the airplanes crashed into the WTC) came up with the Every Child Left Behind Act. The students are being used as lab rats and informants so that the schools can inevitably be betrayed as failures, thus mandating threatened removal of their funding. (Uh, this is supposed to improve education HOW?) And the poor teachers spend so much time jumping through hoops trying to teach to the tests rather than enriching kids' minds that they can't teach what they really need and want to teach. The kids miss out on all the fun. No wonder they hate to read and write.

I warned you I needed to be taken down.

Anyway, I found the scoring enlightening because I was indeed impressed by some of these students' abilities. It's been so long since I have taught that I was reminded of so many things I used to enjoy about teaching, most of all how diverse students' writing can be. I had nearly forgotten that each student truly has a style that's as distinct as a fingerprint, and it's thrilling to see their individual hallmarks.

Sure, I ran across a number of papers that said things such as, "This story was kinda dumb and it sounds familiar so I think I read it before" (no more writing on subsequent pages). But others soared with insight. And even if the illegible handwriting made me spend three times too long to decipher a paper, or misspellings were distracting, or it quickly became clear that the student was ESOL, sometimes these very papers showed the deepest thought. It's funny how a writer's real meaning can still shine through a million possible types of unintentional obfuscation. By its nature, writing presents so many opportunities for screwing up. It's also odd how many ways a student can get so, so close to saying something profound, yet barely miss the mark by some sort of insupportable logical leap or by failing to add just a phrase enough to "connect the dots." In many cases I could see what was left out more clearly than what was there.

There were a few papers that made me laugh. I was so heartened by the fact that I heard others titter, too. I didn't mean to laugh AT the students, but sometimes an unfortunate locution just tickled me. Even after a hundred years of professional writing and editing, I find writing mistakes funny and entertaining. I could always still see what the student meant to say.

Following this paragraph are just a few of the "keepers" that stayed in my mind after I left the Town Hall day by day. To preface, the story students read was about a teen boy, Luis, and his father, a recent widower. The father owns and manages a car junk yard of which he is very proud. Luis has been in a juvenile detention center for starting a semi-gang called the Tiburones (Sharks). One of his offenses, which no one knew about, was registering the Tiburones as a "school club" and putting on a "benefit talent show" for club profit. The ostensible beneficiaries were animals and the club claimed the money would be donated to animal rights causes. The actual ultimate "cause" was nothing more than buying mice to feed Luis' pet boa constrictor. Luis finishes out his juvy sentence doing community service--working for his father for free.
  1. "What cunfunded me was, why did Luis join a gang." Yeah, that cunfunded me, too.
  2. "One question I had was why did the Tribunes have a talent show?" (Maybe they were spurred by the intense competition from other media?)
And my personal favorite--it was my last paper of the day and I lost my composure and started giggling in that kind of irrepressible laugh that you get when you're in a library and you're not allowed to make noise and the laugh goes on and on and you snort and can't stop:

3. "Luis and his father have pizza together for the first time in a long time. The reference to the boa was really about Luis. He needed a lot of mice to keep him healthy and happy."

Oh, dear Lord. I laughed and puzzled and laughed and puzzled again. Anyway, it wasn't until I was on my way out that I realized that this was actually quite an astute observation! Luis, whose mother has died and whose father is prissy and remote, needs attention. He needs a lot of care and feeding. Thus he's revived a bit by finally having a meal with his dad. There's a metaphorical parallel between the physical needs of the bestial bad snake and the emotional needs of the delinquent boy. DUH!

Stupid scorer! Bad lady! Dumb lady! Shame!

I thought about this quite a bit and even woke up at night worrying that I had wronged the student (I think I gave the paper a 3). But the conclusion I came to was that, although the [buried] idea was good and the student had shown a depth of understanding, poor articulation blocked the intended meaning profoundly. I consulted others on this and they agreed with me--in fact, none of them had seen the idea there at all and just thought the kid was being a jerk by saying Luis needed to eat mice. The second reader solidly scored it the same way I had, so I let it be.

I miss this sort of thing. There's nothing like a good writing howl to soothe my soul. This is precisely the type of bucking up I need. I should return to the land of misplaced modifiers and the Paramedic Method of editing (that's when you need to call 911 to fix the piece).

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At 3/14/2007 8:07 PM, Blogger Nance said...

I was sharing your soapbox; indeed, I was hogging it. And we had lots of company.


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