A New York Public School Teacher on the Infuriating State Test That Is Turning Kids Off to Learning

Getting schooled.
April 10 2014 11:44 PM

They Used to Love to Learn

A New York public school teacher on the infuriating state test that is turning kids off to reading and writing.

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If you got these questions right, it meant that you had an advanced enough memory to retain what had happened in Paragraphs 6 and 8 as you read the question that referred to Line 9 in order to determine what the test writer thought was the relationship among all three parts of the text. Question after question required undue scrutiny of individual words and phrases as they connected to other words and phrases. That isn’t close reading. That isn’t what we did all year, as we read and reread to talk about authorial intent, point of view, character motivations—things that I didn’t talk about as a student until middle school, that now I was watching my third-graders slowly but surely be able to do. But no: This was text dissection and process of elimination. Nobody really reads like that. It’s not how I taught, and it’s not what the Common Core expects. One of the huge goals of the Common Core is to prepare students for real-life reading, to be able to engage with text in the real world no matter the genre. Hear, hear! I would love for someone at Pearson, the company that produced the ELA, to find me one 8-year-old who would, on any given day in the “real world,” somehow come into contact with a level X (sixth-grade) novel that is set during the Great Depression, with characters who speak in local vernacular and are facing the problems of poverty and bankruptcy. But this is what’s used to measure how well my students can understand “authentic texts.” Give me a break.

During the test, my readers, who months ago couldn’t get their noses out of books, complained of stomachaches as they persevered and tried to read texts that were over their heads and had no relevance to their lives, age, or backgrounds. They struggled to hold their heads up and were doing hand stretches at the 60-minute mark as they tried to do what they were taught, what they know how to do—to back up their ideas with strong text evidence. But at the end of the day, their close reading and thinking put them at a disadvantage because they barely had enough time to finish writing about topics and texts that not only were inappropriate for their age and developmental level, but that they would never, EVER encounter in their reading lives, inside of school or out.

My kids are now totally fried and frustrated, and so am I. Worst of all, these tests are turning reading and writing into chores, into something that more closely resembles punishment than it does a way to enrich thinking. This is sucking the life and love out of their young literary lives. Did I break my promise from September? Do they not love to read and write anymore because of this insane culture? The hard work that we put in earlier in the year, showing them that there was so much to love about reading and writing, and doing it in a way that really does support these higher standards of learning, will not be reflected in their test results. It’s not what they needed to show New York state that they are grade-level readers (which, ironically enough, almost all of them are).

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Again, it is my job to take care of them and their learning. Recently it has become part of my job to try and push their thinking beyond what many child psychologists would consider “developmentally appropriate” for 8-year-olds, and I was, and still am, up for that challenge, even though it’s a little crazy. It is not my job to take children who are developing, who are trying to make sense of the world and the books around them, and turn them into test-taking drones who read and write with the intention of dissection and choosing the best answer out of four complex answer choices that all say little to nothing about what the text actually meant.

The past few days have made it seem as though that’s what my job is supposed to be, and that all of the love (and skill!) they have developed for literature and writing this year is irrelevant, as is the progress my kids have made that will not be shown by this absurdity. You can assess me all you want. I will number-crunch and data-report until the cows come home, but leave my kids out of it. They’re trying to become stronger readers and writers, and this is getting in the way. We need a way to measure their growth from start to finish, not to see where they fall on a bell curve that is already skewed because of the flawed measures that it rests on.

And if you’re not sure what I mean … try going back to Paragraph 2, Lines 8–10, as well as Paragraph 5, Lines 1–4, and then choose the sentence from Paragraph 7 that best supports the main idea found in both of those paragraphs. Because if you can do that, you will have shown me that you have a deep understanding of the message I am trying to convey.

This piece originally appeared on Testing Talk.

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