Monday , March 23, 2015 - 8:16 AM
A 6th grader in East Texas recently challenged state lawmakers to do what she and every other public-school kid have to do during testing season: "Sit in a room for up to four hours, without talking, writing, drawing, reading, or using your cell phone." Because millions of children are taking Common Core standardized tests this time of year, I did her one better. I took a 4th-grade English Language Arts practice test. The good news is I passed.
The bad news is that the test is basically worthless, highlighting the folly of using standardized tests to measure a child's ability to read and write. And to the Texas 6th grader's point, in no way whatsoever was I able to quietly sit still for that long. Of course, it didn't take me four hours to complete the sample test. I don't want to brag, but I'm very advanced for a 4th grader.
I took a sample test from the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, one of two groups doing the Common Core testing. Twenty-one states belong to the SBAC, mostly on the west coast, the Black Hills, New England, and some of the Great Lakes area. Other states, such as Alabama, Alaska, Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Utah, have voted to pull out of SBAC mostly because their legislatures have political differences with President Obama, and not for any pedagogical reasons.
Common Core—originally a state-driven guideline to make sure Americans got a good education—isn't a bad idea. Unfortunately, trying to measure the growth of a child's mind with a standardized test just corrupts the whole process. To get students ready to take an English Language Arts test, they don't do what you and I would recognize as reading and writing. An education that prepares a kid to take a standardized test is a perversion of the idea of education.
Completely absent from the sample test on English Language Arts was any literature, AKA the art of the English language. A nine-year-old in the English-speaking world is heir to a cultural fortune, including "James and the Giant Peach" by Roald Dahl, C.S. Lewis' "The Chronicles of Narnia," and "Charlotte's Web" by E.B. White, among many others. Sadly, this canon is not aimed at our children.
Instead, a prepubescent test-taker will have to read antiseptic "selections." In one passage that recalled Native American folk tales but was not described as such (depriving the student of any cultural appreciation of literature), a coyote dresses up like a bear to steal honey. It was so boring I had to make blinders of my hands to force myself to focus on the text.
Then there were the questions, some of which seemed confusing for a 9-year-old and some that puzzled a middle-aged columnist. One question asked which sentence out of a paragraph "best supports the inference that Coyote uses his imagination." A kid could get tripped up on the word "inference," and it was irrelevant to the concept being tested. Asking what "best shows Coyote uses his imagination" would have worked better.
Then there were the questions that made me want to strangle the committee that wrote this test. None of the possible answers for what "best describes the lesson Coyote learned" had anything to do with the real meaning of the parable, and a student is asked to decide whether a particular metaphor about a "tree's belly" is humorous, playful, or surprising, even though humor is often playful and surprising. Maybe I shouldn't be surprised that people who write standardized tests do not fundamentally understand humor.
The writing portion of the test was ludicrous. Students were given a business card-shaped rectangle in which to record their analysis. You could replace this entire test with a book report and come out ahead. Actually, you could probably buy every child in America first editions and come out ahead. The price tag on SBAC tests in California alone is $1 billion.
We're so focused on measuring children that we've stopped developing them. These tests don't measure what we want our children to learn and are a waste of money. That Texas 6th grader has a point. I can't sit quietly. This test is failing our children.
Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @JasStanford.
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