Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Testing From Inside the English Class

HSPT in Full Swing

The HSPT, High School Proficiency Test, had far-reaching consequences. It was given to students in the 11th grade and soon became a graduation requirement. Students had to pass it in order to get a diploma.

Talk about high stakes.

Now the pressure was on to get students ready for the test. Essay writing became focused on creating clear, cohesive pages in that five paragraph format, making sure everything stayed on topic and that arguments were easy to follow.

I had to write test questions geared toward the kinds of questions the test might ask, and for a full two weeks before the test was administered, I and the other English teachers were given test prep booklets to use in our lessons. There were three separate workbooks to use. each set up to match the HSPT format with reading materials and writing projects.

There was one narrative reading selection, one persuasive essay and one informative essay. Each had a series of multiple choice questions about vocabulary, understanding of facts, interpretation of materials, and often, author purpose. There were related "open ended" questions where students were expected to comment on specifics about the reading materials and there was also a picture prompt, a photograph of some sort that the students were supposed to use to inspire a story of their own.

Day after day, we worked out of those booklets, discussing, at least in my classes, not so much the value or meaning of the materials we read, but rather just what the test creators were trying to find out with their questions. Which answer was right, and why? Which answer was a trap the test writer had put into the test? Out of four multiple choice answers, we discovered we could usually throw out two, and be left with two that might be right. Picking the right one, and deciding how the wrong one was intended to lead us astray became part of every class session.

Test Clip ArtWe weren't studying the English language any more, we were learning how to take standardized tests.

Open ended questions? Make sure you answer both parts and pick out something from the reading material to support whatever answer you decided to write.

Picture prompt? Make sure your story lists things you see in the picture somewhere.

I was teaching mostly the college bound students at that time, and  I was lucky. Some of the other teachers had students who had reading and writing difficulties much more challenging than any I had to face.

Every one of the teachers in our English Department was exceptional, and ultimately, the scores our students achieved on the tests were amazing.

But there were still students who just couldn't make the passing scores and soon it was clear we needed to do more.

Remedial courses came into play in a big way and impacted nearly every classroom in the building.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Testing from Inside the Classroom

After the MBS

The MBS changed a lot about teaching. No longer was I expected to teach literature for the love of art and reading. Now it had become a means to an end, with the end being specific reading skills.

Not that everything was spelled out. I had plenty of new textbooks to use and I'd always had a lot of supplemental materials at hand, so I still had some creativity left in my lessons. The MBS test was not overly challenging for students who could handle my course work and with some extra help, most of the students in our school did pretty well with their scores.

There were remedial classes offered. At that point we had a cadre of teachers specializing in remedial work and they taught students in danger of failing. The "regular" English classes stayed the same.

I Dont Speak English Clip ArtBut, MBS was a chameleon. Soon it evolved into the HSPT, the High School Proficiency Test and it migrated from the 9th grade into the 11th grade test and soon became a requirement for graduation. The new test was harder, measuring what someone decided were higher order thinking skills, interpretations of writing, and different kinds of writing.

Paper Boy Clip ArtNow, students needed to be able to determine techniques of persuasion, uncover the author's purpose, and write persuasive, factual, and creative essays on their own proving their mastery of those skills. Open ended questions appeared demanding clear and complete answers in order to earn all the points.

Now, I had to focus on teaching students to carefully interpret the questions they were being expected to answer, giving them rules of structure, not so much because it was good writing, but rather because it was the kind of writing that would earn maximum points on essays. While they were learning how to make a coherent argument to back up an answer, the freedom of expression I so respected was gradually being replaced by essays where the structure became far more important than the content.

If they could master the five paragraph essay format with a good introduction and conclusion, odds are, they'd do fine on the writing parts of the test.

As for the reading sections, now I found myself offering advice and instruction on just how to figure out what the test writer wanted as an answer, not what the student might believe about a reading selection.

Here's where the strictures of standardized testing started to really bother me. Good literature often evokes unexpected reactions from readers. Demanding specific answers from a multiple choice list denies the reader the chance to think creatively about a work. I had to, whenever we looked at sample test materials, remind students to seek the right answer not head off on creative thinking tangents.

The new tests had something called picture prompts. Students were expected to write a story based on the picture. While that could be fun, once again the test scorers had to be taken into account. See a picture of a guy eating an apple?  Well it might inspire a really clever fantasy tale based on the Snow White fairy tale full of little dwarves and a sleeping prince, but you'd better make darn sure the man and the apple played a prominent role along with any other details in the picture. Otherwise it might score no points at all.  The job was to somehow paint the picture with your words and, oh yes, don't write any more lines than the space given on the answer sheet. No writing in the margins or getting extra paper. They'd only score the sentences that fit on the pages. And all within a time limit, mind you.

Stack Of Books Clip ArtThe fun had taken flight. Along with it came some more brand new textbooks, now geared to the skills of the new tests. Once again, fat books, supplemental teaching materials, CD's, and reproducible student worksheets flooded the classrooms taking the place of books of classic short stories, Shakespeare plays, and other literature anthologies. The new books did package some of the same old stories, but now they were reprinted with comprehension and evaluation questions determined to give students all the practice they needed in HSPT expectations. 

We, as teachers, had new lists of curriculum requirements at our disposal. Numbered skills we were supposed to teach, and our lesson plans had to have those numbers jotted down as we checked off each skill we were getting our students to master as we taught.

Things were getting complicated, and not necessarily in a good way.

Friday, April 24, 2015

The First High Stakes Tests

MBS: Minimum Basic Skills

Once T & E was firmly in place, the data driven curriculum started to flourish. Now, education needed a way to reliably reduce student learning to numbers.

People outside of education love numbers. They are an easy way of determining something's worth. How many dollars? How many points? How many sales? How many wins or how many losses? What's his RBI or SO rate? What are the odds?

Teachers use numbers too, to determine grades. How many points earn an ""A?"  How many numbers add up and then divide to get an average of a passing grade.

The difference is, that in the world outside education, numbers usually evaluate concrete, real, countable things. Inside education, the numbers are often not so objective. Try as they might to be as objective as possible in some areas, subjectivity always falls into the mix. This is especially true in the English classroom where student responses and reactions to literature can not always be objectively evaluated. After all, quite often a student might have a unique opinion about a story or poem studied in class. Does the teacher demand the student's reaction fall into a set pattern of expected responses or does the teacher encourage independent and creative interpretations? Do we encourage the student to think on his own, or do we decide the answers for him and expect a robotic response?

Sometimes, to a good teacher who wants to encourage her students to think, the standard response and those numbers just don't work.

But now, there were tests, claiming to judge a student's mastery of, in this case, basic reading and writing skills. The test was of basic skills, the reading and writing students needed to succeed in the world once they graduated from high school regardless of whether or not they went on to college. Could they communicate? Could they read a newspaper or most of the kinds of reading material they might encounter in the real world?  Just what could they do?

graduation cap 1 clip artIt wasn't long after the MBS tests were introduced that passing scores became essential for high school graduation. Pass the test, then pass all your classes in school, and you earned your diploma. Fail the test? Well there were plenty of methods for remediation.

In the classroom, teaching began to change. No longer could I teach a piece of literature as pure art. Now it became a means to an end. What skill did the students need to learn that day? Was it how to figure out the meaning of a word through context? Was it trying to distinguish between fact and opinion?

books-aj.svg aj ashton 01 clip artSomewhere along the line textbook designers licked their lips in happy anticipation and began to develop skills based literature books. Content was based less upon literary value and more upon just what basic skills a particular reading selection could teach.

Schools spent thousands of dollars investing in packaged curriculum materials promising student mastery of all those basic skills if teachers dedicated their lessons to the manufactured course outlines.

We weren't required to live by the law of those text materials, at least not in my school. While I still taught so my students could succeed on the test, I used literature and learning materials from a myriad of sources instead, always trying to find the best reading for my students instead of what someone else packaged for me. I know my fellow teachers did the same. Most of us had our own lists of great reading matter already and often used that in place of what the textbooks offered.

Most of the time, our students thrived because of it. Somehow, despite what the packaged materials implied, it was possible to teach all those basic skills through the study of good literature instead of in the isolation.  Today we might call this a holistic approach.

Back then, it was just some darn good teaching.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The History of High Stakes Testing from Inside My Classroom

Where It Began

I started teaching English full time in a comprehensive vocational/technical high school in 1971.  My first students were a difficult lot. While many of them were skilled in their chosen trade study, their reading and writing skills were not at all good.

Back then, many schools in the county sent their poor academic achieving and behavioral problem students to the vocational schools to "get rid of the problems."  Teaching students who had been rejected like that was always a challenge. The upside was how rewarding it was when I was able to help students succeed and discovered a lesson in English class that really grabbed their attention and encouraged them to learn.

Back then, all we really worried about was helping students get ready to go out and earn a living on the job. English class was filled with lessons on practical writing/reading skills. Students learned about handling bank accounts, filling out income tax forms, writing basic resumes, filling out job applications, writing business letters of various kinds, and learning how to read and deal with any other kind of paperwork they might encounter in the real world of work.

As practical and useful as it all was, these classes were not exactly the most inspirational experiences. Mentally challenging? Not at all. Stimulating? Not often. I mean, just how many stories can you read about how Johnny went to work to earn enough money to buy a used car?

Somewhere along the line, I, still able to develop my own curriculum instead of being dictated to by a set and formal list of  absolutely required material, decided to try something different.

Since I loved Shakespeare, I decided to teach my class Hamlet. I have always loved the play, and hoped some of my enthusiasm might rub off on my class of 11th grade welders who were totally turned off by English class.

I can still remember sitting across from my principal when we discussed my lesson plans that week. He looked over his glasses at me and said, "You can't teach Shakespeare to welders."

Hamlet Clip Art"Of course I can," I replied and despite his skepticism, he signed off on the plans and shaking his head sent me off to what he was sure was going to be slaughter.

I won't say it was easy, but ultimately, the experiment was a dramatic success. The story of Hamlet is so powerful and the repeated crises of conscience Hamlet experiences throughout the play really caught the class's attention. These students had never experienced great literature. They'd spent so much time filling out job application forms they'd missed out on the better lessons of the English language.

In the following years, students in my classes read and studied Shakespeare, challenged each other to soliloquy contests, walked through the halls of the school quoting the Bard, and in one year, establishing their own little fan club to go to New York to attend the opera. (That after introducing them to the legend of Siegfried and the Ring of the Nibelung)

All was going well. Then, in the later 70's along came the State of New Jersey and a new initiative to "make education better."  This was the beginning of T & E:  Thorough and Efficient. The idea was to make sure every student in NJ schools was getting a T & E education.

As well intended as that might be, like all such programs, the politicians and educational experts who invented the plan needed some way to evaluate it.

The answer? Why, tests, of course.

Graph Clip ArtIt began with internal classroom control, in the hands of the teachers. I my school, I was given a pile of graph charts, one of each student. (At that time I had perhaps 150 students a day to teach.)  I was expected to give them a pre-test at the beginning of the school year, and a post-test at the end of the school year. I was the one writing the tests specific to my class, knowing what I planned to teach during the year. The idea was that students would not score well on the pre-test since it measured the skills I expected to teach, and then at the end of the year, their scores would rise, proving I had been successful in teaching them all the skills and material.

There is was; proof of my teaching efficiency on nice neat charts. As I recall the charts were supposed to follow the students throughout their high school years, passing from one teacher to another, showing their progress in mastering subjects.  Every teacher in every subject area was expected to create these charts for all courses taught.

Eventually, when the State of New Jersey came to the school to assess it, we'd have the charts to prove our worth and just how thorough and efficient we were.

I don't remember all the details of what happened to all those pieces of paper generated by the testing. I can recall cleaning out one of my file cabinets when I retired some thirty years later and finding a folder with charts still in them.  I also later moved my classroom to a computer lab that had a nice storage room in back with walls of metal shelves filled with what I discovered to be "monitoring notebooks" dating back to that period of time. These were the reams of paperwork created to satisfy the State Monitors when they came to the school to evaluate and certify our programs.

The books and charts stood as silent testimony to what was to come. It was the beginning of my experience with high stakes testing. Then, I was in charge of the test, but as I was soon to learn, what went on in my classroom was not going to stay in my hands for long.

Friday, April 17, 2015

How To Sell A Book

What I've Tried

Apparently, one of the most difficult jobs an author--especially a self-published author--needs to do is find ways to market his books.  Simply putting them up for sale on such sites as Amazon and Smashwords is not really enough.

Now, I have been really surprised to have actually had some success selling my novels. I do think the striking cover for Kingdom Beyond the Rim, created by Dave Melanson, had a great deal to do with that, but I have not been just sitting around on this one.

So, what to do?

Unfortunately, many marketing options cost money. Bookfairs and showcase events can charge hundreds of dollars to present books to the public. Frankly, I just don't have that kind of money to toss around.  Are they good investments to increase sales? Hard to say.

I've looked for low budget options. The BookBzz Prizewriter competition had a modest entry fee, and although I did not win, it's nice to be able to list my novel as a finalist.

I also have spent some money using promotion opportunities on both BookBzz and Book Daily. So far I know Book Daily has featured my novel in various email campaigns. It's a great way to get my novel out before their huge mailing list.

I found out that both Kindle and Publisher's Weekly offer lost cost opportunities to get publicity through website listings and award competitions. I've started working with those sites too.

I have a website for the novels:  Magiskeep, this blog, and pages at Facebook and Tumblr.

I have my own email list and send out notices to people I know.  And then, of course there was an article about my books in the local paper. I sent out subsequent press releases to other papers, but apparently I was not newsworthy enough to merit publication. I still might try again.

I have also scattered business cards advertising my first novel in lots of places I've visited. I just designed a new card for the entire Saga.
The back of the card has my picture and lists all the novels in the series.
I hope to have this card in time for my church's yard sale on April 25.  I've purchased a number of copies of each of my books in paperback and will see if I can sell some at my table.  I will also have some yard sale items there too, so if the books don't sell, I should still make some money.

Now that the weather is warmer, I am going to investigate doing some author talks--perhaps at local libraries.

I am sure I will come up with more promotional ideas as time goes on. The trick is trying to do it all on  a low/no budget.

Rather an interesting challenge.