Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Standardized Tests In the Classroom

HSPA, New Name, Same Old

I'm going to be honest here. I never really sat down to analyze the HSPA (High School Proficiency Assessment) compared to the HSPT (High School Proficiency Test) to see the differences. Word was that the HSPA measured thinking skills on a "higher level" and demanded more proof that students had mastered reading, writing, and comprehension skills based on the NJ Core Curriculum Standards.

What does that all mean in practical terms? More paperwork, more new books, and more focus on testing skills in the classroom. Now we had a kind of "shopping list" to follow. And, as teachers, we needed to be held accountable to make sure we were getting all the groceries into the cart during the year.

Sheikh Tuhin To Do List Clip ArtLesson plans needed to be geared towards the Core Curriculum standards. I had a nice fat book listing all the requirements. I can't find the original standards as they've been replaced since by the new "Common Core" language, but I might have to justify my lesson on "Hamlet" with notations that I was teaching : Reading, I, A, 1,3,4, Writing II, C, 2,3,4-- referring to the standards outline I kept handy on my classroom desk. After a while, I managed to memorize enough of the curriculum's details to write my plans without thumbing through the fat book page by page, so I was able to avoid some eye strain and frustration.

Always, however, despite the secret codes added to my planning, I had to keep my brain geared towards making sure my students were prepared to pass the test. It wasn't just teaching them the standards, it was teaching them how to cope with the demands of the test. How to write an essay that would score the points they needed. How to read a test question to figure out what answer was the right one.

Often, I found myself adapting my lessons not to develop learners who appreciated good classical literature and enjoyed thinking about its meanings but rather students who could figure out what someone else wanted them to say about things.

Footman Clip ArtI can recall numbers of times when some of my more creative thinkers in my classroom might invent a brand new analysis of something we read in class. Sometimes the responses and reactions were a revelation worth exploring and cherishing. Inventive insights into stories that at one time might have taken a class lesson on a wild journey of imagination and discovery. Outside into the school parking lot to practice mock combat to see just how Macbeth died at the end of the play. Or a hike around the school building just observing to see if we could figure out what civilization was like by seeing what it left behind. How about hunting for hidden pirate flags in the classroom just because it was "International Speak Like a Pirate Day?" (September 19, by the way)  Usually, I could justify such adventures with some numbers and letters from the Core Curriculum, but the spontaneity was gone.

Follow a set pattern in writing an essay, not to express your ideas so much as to make sure that some test scorer in a little room somewhere could easily understand that you'd "mastered the topic." Don't get too far afield with that story you're writing about the picture I just showed you. If you see a bicycle there, make sure you mention it instead of calling it "ET's Transportation Module."

Then, of course, there were more test prep booklets. The school bought hundreds every year--more profit for those corporate folks. In the weeks before the test, we focused on them, class after class.

I just talked to one of my fellow retired English teachers the other day. Somehow the topic of testing came up. "Remember that story?" she asked, referring to the test prep books. "I hated that story, and so did my students. They never understood it."

W-eficiency Clip ArtOf course I remembered "that story:" The Open Window, by Saki. We read it year after year, and my students, even the college prep kids rarely got the surprise ending. I still remember the last line. "Romance on short notice was her specialty."  (Look it up on Google if you're curious. Apparently half the world doesn't understand it either.)  Classic literature, indeed? Modern vocabulary, or at least language familiar to the average reader, especially an 11th grade high school student? Not likely.

Someone had decided that story was perfect test prep. I guess it was intended to prepare us all for the unexpected.

Well, we English/Language Arts teachers were pretty well used to the unexpected by now, so even the new HSPA didn't throw us a curve. We were mastering "how to teach to the test" and having plenty of practice at it.

I just wonder how much else we were teaching in our classes.

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