Confessions of a Reluctant Teacher

September 28, 2009

How Standardized Tests Punish Nonconformity

In a previous post, I linked to an article by a former standardized testing grader, Todd Farley. He has an op-ed piece in the New York Times today entitled “Reading Incomprehension,” which is also very eye-opening. He talks about the difficulty of scoring open-ended items on a standardized rubric and he gives a few examples of especially confounding student responses.

I disagree, however, with his opening claim that “the problem [with standardized testing] is not so much the tests themselves–it’s the people scoring them.” Open-ended questions are inherently subjective and therefore difficult to grade according to a rubric.  Even if the scoring was done “only by professionals who have made a commitment to education,” a lot of the results would still be influenced by personal bias.  For example, take the review of the X-rated “Debbie Does Dallas” which Mr. Farley encountered.  While he described it as well-written and hilarious, normally qualities that would merit a 6 (“genius”) grade, it ended up being given a 0 because it discussed a pornographic movie.  This student obviously possessed a sense of humor, the ability to think independently and question authority, and enough writing skill to craft a “comprehensive analysis” that was “artfully written.”  Yep, sounds like that kid needed to be put in his or her place with a big, fat zero.  Would a “professional who was committed to education” have made a different call?  It would depend entirely on the individual professional.  While one who appreciated the student’s wit and individualism might have given it a higher grade, one who was offended by children and teenagers exploring their sexuality might have given it the same zero.

In another example, Mr. Farley tries to decipher whether a drawing of a child wearing a helmet while riding a bike over a flaming oil spill properly demonstrated “an understanding of bike safety.”  Since the student had just read a passage about bike safety, and most children don’t encounter walls of fire while tooling around the neighborhood, I would say, “Yes, of course.  The kid in the picture is wearing a helmet.  He’s just trying to inject some humor into the lifeless, eternally dull process of taking a standardized test.”  Mr. Farley, however, was stumped as to how many points he should assign.  The experience showed him that “the score any student would earn mostly depended on which temporary employee viewed his response.”  I think that the student’s score would depend, not on the scorer’s background or “commitment to education,” but on the scorer’s “commitment” to enforcing conformity and punishing those who color outside the lines.  The scorers are hired to judge, not to educate.  Because of the way standardized tests are set up, we can’t just ask the student about their intentions with the drawing.  That would require a sense of humor and respect for a child’s thought process.  I’m sure the test designers thought that having the students draw a picture in response to a reading passage would be a creative learning exercise.  I hope that child wasn’t penalized too harshly for being creative in the wrong way.

Ultimately, Mr. Farley and his colleagues had trouble with some of these responses because the rubric doesn’t work if the student refuses to conform, not necessarily because they were only “temporary employees.”  The problem is still with the test and what it demands of students, not with the people who score it.

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September 4, 2009

How I Learned to Write, Part 2

Click here to read Part 1.

When we last saw our heroine, she was about to dive into the underworld of academia, the dirty little secret of many overachieving students: cheating.  Only in order to save her GPA (and her smart-girl reputation), of course.

I wasn’t going to do anything as crass as purchasing a ready-made essay from the internet.  After all, I genuinely wanted to do the work; I just couldn’t figure out how.  I decided I’d check out every book of literary criticism of Kafka from our library.  I’d pick passages relevant to my assigned story, paraphrase them, and cobble them together to form a cohesive essay: my own brand of Plagiarism Lite.

As I read through these books, however, an amazing thing happened: I learned how to think about Kafka’s writing.  I remember literally saying at one point, “Oh, so that’s what my professor wants me to do!”  While reading these other writers, I found myself thinking of other citations from the story to support their claims, sometimes disagreeing with their arguments, and sometimes drawing my own, unique conclusions about Kafka’s words.  At the end of the course, both of the papers I turned in were wholly original.  I never had to plagiarize a single word.

Unfortunately, it seems rare for other students to have the same revelation I did: that writing is an opportunity for me to engage with a writer, an event, or a way of seeing the world.  I am so glad that I got a chance to learn that writing is not about telling a professor what she wants to hear.  It’s about finding out what you have to say.  Of course, when writing, you should consider what the reader wants.  If no one is interested in what you have to say, no one will read your words, and then your writing becomes an exercise in one hand clapping.  But I think having something to say is the foundation of all good writing.

Ironically, that is ultimately what led me away from a major in literature.  Although I enjoyed the intellectual stimulation of literary criticism and there are people who turn it into a career, I realized that whatever I wrote in that genre wouldn’t be anything I really wanted to say.  While I believe great literature can be relevant no matter how long ago it was written (that’s what makes it great), I just don’t think what critics say about it matters that much.  Anybody who reads literary criticism probably already has ideas of his own about the text, anyway.  And that’s how the author meant his or her writing to be: an intimate conversation between himself or herself and another individual, multiplied thousands or millions of times over.  I have no desire to get in the middle of that.  Now that I can enjoy books without a professor’s agenda hanging over my head, I don’t beat myself up if I don’t understand why everyone thinks The Brothers Karamazov is so great.  I can just accept that Dostoevsky’s message in that book wasn’t meant for me, and I can move on to something that really resonates with me, like Notes from Underground.

So I was greatly encouraged to see last weekend’s New York Times article spotlighting teachers who don’t assign and “teach” certain books: they let their students choose what they want to read.  Instead of the teacher leading a discussion to “teach” the book, they all take turns giving mini-presentations to the class, talking about the book and often recommending it to their classmates.  Sure, the occasional student picks Captain Underpants, but many students have been inspired by their peers to read major literary works like Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, or A Lesson Before Dying by Ernest J. Gaines.  The students may not fully grasp the subtext or be able to “unpack” certain passages, but I think authors have a reason for embedding their perspective on certain issues within a fictional story, instead of just writing an essay.  It’s OK to just enjoy the story, and if you’d like to learn how to peer into the author’s deeper meaning, I suggest checking out How to Read Literature like a Professor.

Nevertheless, it is completely possible to enjoy great literature without being “taught” how to do so.  After all, The Last of the Mohicans sold the modern equivalent of 10 million copies in the early 1800s, long before every man, woman, and child was expected to sit through an English class to learn how to properly appreciate great writing.  Come to think of it, some of them even managed to learn to write that great literature without the benefit of instruction.  Maybe we should give today’s budding readers and writers some of the same trust and freedom.

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