Define Reading and Support Your Answer with 3 Examples from the Text.
I asked my students: “What did Natasha say about men walking on the moon?”
Chad had an answer. “She said it never happened. She told Toughboy that his teachers were lying, because it was impossible for men to walk on the moon.”
“Were you surprised by what she said?” This was the more important follow-up question, requiring inference and analysis.
“I wasn’t,” volunteered Carlotta. “Natasha always has something negative to say, especially when she doesn’t know the real answer.”
“Yeah,” added Loren, “and she really hates modern technology. I wasn’t surprised either.”
We were discussing Winter Camp by Kirkpatrick Hill. Elsewhere in my classroom, the other fifth grade students were preparing for their own reading group meetings. One boy, who was reading Call it Courage, had just Googled the longitude and latitude of the island Hikueru and was trying to locate it on our world map. Students with The Music of Dolphins were supposed to be reading independently, but Dallas and Andy had their heads together, whispering excitedly about the chapter where Mila breaks the TV with a chair. I should have been pleased with my students’ enthusiastic involvement with their literature. But instead, I was worried.
Were my current classroom activities adequately preparing students for the upcoming state test?
Every state in the country has its own set of assessments, mandated by the No Child Left Behind law. In Pennsylvania, we face the PSSAs, a daunting battery of tests composed of multiple choice and open-ended responses. The fifth grade test is disproportionately difficult, and more points are required to reach “proficiency” at this grade level than any other—including eleventh grade.
A person might think that any meaningful instructional activities provided in the classroom would help students score well on a test of reading skills. However, experience and research have shown that children must practice with activities that greatly resemble the assessment in order to meet the testing standards. This is because the paper and pencil tasks do not really reflect what readers do with books on a daily basis. In real life we converse about books and learn from other readers; we don’t answer questions in isolation for an anonymous and distant judge who offers no appeal.
It all comes down to your definition of literacy.
Our repeated test practice turns up plenty of potential trouble spots. Many of my students have had trouble with a PSSA practice item which asks: Identify the turning point in this passage. Support your answer with three examples from the text. As an adult, I know that describing the problem, the turning point, and the resolution will satisfy the requirements of this task. But my literal-thinking students try to find three examples solely related to the turning point, and most of them end up describing the same event three times. In conversation, these students could prove their understanding of turning point, but they are confused by the written prompt and do not score well on this exercise. I also observe students stumped by terms used on the PSSA that don’t match the ones they learned in class. One English Language Learner was lost when the test asked for the “characteristics” of the grandmother in the passage, instead of “character traits.” Another student didn’t realize that the word “passage” meant the text. Talking to these students could have cleared up these problems and enabled them to show off their abilities. Too bad it violates test validity for me to clarify a question.
English Language Learners especially have it rough in Pennsylvania. The state allows them only one year before requiring that they take the Reading PSSA—and pass. Of course, proficiency on this test means being able to make inferences, identify text structure in a non-fiction passage, and distinguish between similes and metaphors. I’ve had the honor of teaching many highly intelligent, non-native English speakers, but none who could reach that level of expertise in a single year.
Sadly, a lot of schools have given up teaching novels in favor of more test practice with short passages and multiple-choice questions that directly mimic the state test. I find this a worrisome trend, considering the downward spiral of American interest in reading. A recent New Yorker article reported that in a survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts in 2002 only 47% of the participants had read a work of creative literature in the previous twelve months. That’s over half the participants admitting to not a single book in a year. I guess that explains a conversation I overheard at a recent school event. Two parents were discussing an extra credit project involving reading books over summer vacation. One mother said without apology that her child wouldn’t be doing it. “He didn’t read any books last summer. Well, neither did I. We were just too busy.”
The high pressure demands of the NCLB law have forced many schools to make the same choice, and suddenly students are much too busy in reading class to read novels. Instead, they use anthologies and test-prep books which utilize short passages on a multitude of subjects to teach discrete reading skills and application of these skills on standardized tests. At the school where my sister teaches in Kansas, novels were put away for a 12-week period, replaced by intensive test preparation. Reading books would have to wait until the state test is over.
In my school, we have tried to strike a balance, alternating three weeks of anthology instruction with three weeks of novels. It’s a compromise I’ve learned to live with, although I sympathize with my student Maggie, who asks every day as she closes her anthology, “How many more days until we start our next novel, Mrs. Salerni?”
And still, the worries keep piling up. On the day of my Winter Camp meeting, teachers had received notice that the 2008 PSSA would include the concepts of bias and propaganda. No samples of test items were provided by the state, so we don’t know if students will be tested with advertisements or editorials and whether they will need to identify specific types of propaganda. Several teachers offered to locate passages that demonstrate bias and create teaching activities to accompany them, so that we could all prepare our students to answer whatever the test asked them.
Again, I ask myself, what is the true definition of literacy?
I was reflecting on this question when I wrenched my attention back to the Winter Camp group. “Yes,” I said, “I would agree that Natasha has a real bias against modern technology, and that includes astronauts walking on the moon.” I turned and looked expectantly at Loren, seated on my right.
She didn’t let me down. “What’s bias mean?” she inquired, as I knew she would.
“I’m glad you asked,” I said. “Let me explain it to you and give some examples from our text.”