Josie is anxious about the upcoming New York State third grade English Language Arts (ELA) and math tests. I say she doesn’t have to be perfect; she says she does. I say she just has to do her best; she says if she doesn’t get a 5 on the test, she will hate herself. WELCOME TO MY WORLD.
Unfortunately, the tests matter. Kids can be held back from 4th grade based solely on their scores, and schools can be penalized if kids aren’t deemed to have made sufficient progress from year to year. The test scores are the biggest chunk of schools’ letter grades, according to the Department of Education’s ham-fisted formula. And principals’ jobs and schools’ autonomy can ride on this flimsy data. (My kids’ school got a D last year and a B this year — but of course the school didn’t really improve that much. Tiny fluctuations in test scores were what made much of the difference, and since this is a very small school, every blip matters. Next year, I imagine we’ll go back down to a C or a D, since we won’t have made sufficient progress. And then we’ll rocket back up to a B again the year after that. It’s just like the Coney Island Cyclone! Whee!)
There’s this site called Brownie the Cow where you can take a 2006 4th grade ELA test. Dude. I’m a magna cum laude Harvard grad with a double concentration in English and Folklore & Mythology (two reading- and writing-heavy disciplines), and I had trouble. I’m a professional writer and I’m not at all sure I’d have passed. Take the writing test yourself and see what I mean.
I do think Josie’s teacher is doing a good job preparing the kids without panicking them (Josie does that just fine on her own, alas), though it seems to me, from Jo’s reports, that a dismaying amount of instructional time is being devoted to test prep. I looked over her shoulder last night as she did a practice ELA test and my eyes bugged. I was honestly not sure of the right answers on a couple of questions.
One reading comprehension question was based on a story about a one-room schoolhouse on the frontier. The correct answer to a question about how teaching in such a school was different from the way teachers teach today? Teachers of the past had mixed-age classrooms. Uh, MY KID GOES TO A SCHOOL WITH MIXED-AGE CLASSROOMS. For any child in my child’s school, getting the question “right” means negating their own experience of school and gaming the test. Good luck with that, kids.
Then there was the question based on “The Painter and the Judge, a folktale from China.” A mean judge told a painter to make him a painting. This mean judge often failed to pay people for their work and was basically a dick. So the painter simply wrote COWS ON GRASS on a scroll of paper. “Where is the grass?” asked the mean judge. “The cows ate it,” the painter replied. “Then where are the cows?” asked the judge. The painter answered, “Seeing as they’d eaten all the grass, there wasn’t much point in them hanging around any longer, was there? So they left.”
Good story! Love it! But here’s the test question:
How was the painting the painter gave the judge different from most paintings?
A. It had no pictures on it.
B. It had real grass on it.
C. It showed cows eating grass.
D. It told a story.
Is that not a sucky question?? I could make a good argument for A or D being a fine answer. Do most paintings feature pictures (in which case, the correct answer is A) or do most paintings not tell a story (in which case, the correct answer is D)? For the answer to be A, we have to know what a picture is. Merriam-Webster defines it as “a design or representation.” So can non-representational paintings be said to have pictures on them? I don’t know, because I JUST HAD A SEIZURE. For the answer to be D, most paintings have to NOT tell a story. But many paintings tell stories, literally or figuratively. BASICALLY, I WANT TO SLAP THIS TEST QUESTION AROUND LIKE IT’S PAINT AND I’M JACKSON POLLOCK. Come on! Is this is the best question the test-makers could come up with? In 2007 the DOE signed an $80 million contract with McGraw-Hill to produce interim assessment tests to be given every six weeks as prep for the state tests. I am not opposed to measurement, or even standardized testing, as long as a) the tests are GOOD and VALID and produce USABLE DATA and b) the tests are used the way the testmakers intended, meaning they’re not super-high-stakes for any given kid. The DoE is flailing on both counts here. Veyizmir.