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.

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