Kids, fail this test

New York’s eighth-grade writing exam is A Test You Need to Fail, writes teacher Ruth Ann Dandrea at Rethinking Schools. The exam, which is meant to predict who’ll pass the Regents exam in 11th grade, gives full credit only to students who cite two facts from the reading material in each answer, she complains.

In your constructed response—no matter how well written, correct, intelligent, noble, beautiful, and meaningful it is—if you’ve not collected any specific facts from the provided readings (even if you happen to know more information about the chosen topic than the readings provide), then you will get a zero.

Don’t go for a good score, Dandrea advises students.

I applaud you, sample writer: When asked the either/or question, you began your response, “Honestly, I think it is both.” You were right, and you were brave, and the test you were taking was neither. And I applaud you, wildest 8th grader of my own, who—when asked how a quote applied to the two characters from the two passages provided—wrote, “I don’t think it applies to either one of them.” Wear your zeroes proudly, kids. This is a test you need to fail.

It’s possible to argue for “both” or “neither,”  citing facts from the reading and beyond to support that opinion.  If her students are good writers, as she believes, it should be easy.  Yet Dandrea thinks the exam is not just too narrow. She calls it “criminal.”

As an aside, Dandrea also mentions she gives students 10 minutes in every class period to read books of their own choosing. Is this a good use of class time?

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Comments

  1. Deirdre Mundy says:

    Or, she could just tell the kids that the test is on the TEXTS PROVIDED and that they should learn to argue based on the text in front of them.

    Yes, TRUTH!! and SUPERIOR KNOWLEDGE!!! are great, but if you want to be persuasive, you need to meet people where they’re at with what THEY know, not just argue that they should trust you, because you’re smarter and more eloquent than they are…..

  2. Obi-Wandreas says:

    This is the problem with large-scale standardized tests in the first place. Without very strict rules about what is and isn’t allowed for credit, it becomes pretty much impossible to maintain any semblance of a standard set of criteria across the entire state. This test has to be able to be fairly scored by every ELA teacher in the entire state. Every one of them can refer back to the text to judge the response. It is not reasonable to expect every teacher across the entire state, each of whom has to grade many different exams, to go searching extra sources to check a student’s essay.

    You either have to have more subjectivity – and thus more chance for unfair results, or more strict rules. There is nothing wrong at all with instituting a test to see if students can analyze a given text and make use of the information given. There is a big difference between “tell me what you think about this information” and “give me your thoughts on life.” The author does not seem to comprehend this.

    She also misrepresents the basic purpose of the exam. The tests are not there to prepare for other tests. The idea is to have some sort of objective standard across a wide area so that students’ progress can be judged.

    The tests used to be in 4th grade and 8th grade alone. After those were instituted, the first result was that teachers who were uncomfortable with certain subjects (math, notably) transferred to 5th grade, the farthest possible point from testing. The next result was that 8th grade teachers were held responsible for 4 years of learning. They were thus extended to every grade from 3-8, not just 7 as she intimates.

    I find it amazing that this person could have been teaching for 29 years without comprehending the criteria upon which students are judged (although, granted, she is simply listed as “secondary”, so she might have been teaching high school). It shows a basic lack of understanding of the practicalities of what she is doing.

  3. In your constructed response—no matter how well written, correct, intelligent, noble, beautiful, and meaningful it is—if you’ve not collected any specific facts from the provided readings (even if you happen to know more information about the chosen topic than the readings provide), then you will get a zero.

    Remembering back to 8th grade, when I was there – and this was at a time when outcomes were a tiny bit higher than now – I don’t think anything I saw anyone produce was “beautiful”, or particularly noble or meaningful, either.

    Learning to follow test instructions, like “give us two facts from the readings”, and also combining that with “well written, correct, intelligent, [etc]” is important.

    You’d think she could teach these intelligent, noble kids how to do that – perhaps in that ten minutes a day they get to read Whatever, where she cannot thus be teaching them anything.

  4. i have to agree with her on one point: as long as a student gives two supporting facts from an article, they can receive full credit even if that is all they write or if what they write in addition to those points is poorly written. at least, that’s how it is in kentucky.

  5. Joanne,

    I think the 10 minutes of time per class for students to read is a good use of a class-time. We do it. If you get students hooked on a story, even one of their choice, and they start to read it, they will want to finish reading it. Do that often enough, and you turn someone into a dedicated reader.

    Obi-Wandreas,

    The purpose of the test is to judge the students ability to write. Citing a source in a paper is an academic skill, and while it is important, it shouldn’t prevent someone who is a good writer from achieving good results just because they failed to cite a quotation from the text in front of them. The standard for this is presumably different in different circumstances. It is primarily a skill that will prepare students for post-secondary work, but it certainly shouldn’t have a high enough emphasis on a student’s work that they fail because of it.