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.

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