California English Journal
Teach to the Test
I score the California Golden State Exam: Reading/Literature. My experience convinces me to change the way I teach and the way I assess my students' reading of literature. I have also scored GSE Written Composition exams , a much easier task than Reading/Literature. In the former the scoring guide closely resembles those most of us are familiar with in one context or another: subject A, WPE, school-wide and district-wide assessment. Written composition assessments are based upon long-held principles of rhetorical effectiveness: thesis, specific support, fluency, correctness. Few of us have difficulty either accepting the principles underlying such a scoring guide or applying it to student writing.
Unfortunately, its wide use seduces us into applying it as an assessment instrument in an area where it simply does not work: reading/literature. I am reminded of the joke about the man who searched for a lost quarter under the street lamp: he hadn't lost it there, but there he searched because the light was better. Written composition scoring guides and tests of learned content are the street lamps. A student's skill in reading/literature is the quarter.
The Reading/Literature Scoring Guide of the GSE requires students to demonstrate that they can read for information and understanding and interpret and critique literature, not as well as write a good essay that parrots a teacher's understanding of a particular work, but instead of.
The Score Point 6 in the Reading/Literature Scoring Guide requires students to "demonstrate a thorough understanding of the text," "develop an insightful and well-founded interpretation," including possibly "the effect of the author's craft and style," and "use convincing textual evidence" and "perceptive analysis" of that evidence to support the interpretation.
Although many classroom teachers, myself included, have attempted to apply written composition scoring guides to the problems of assessing literature and reading (looking for the quarter under the street lamp), such application encourages teaching to a test, instead of how to read.
In other words, we teach the work of literature by essentially telling students the theme and showing how particular details of the work (action, diction, character, setting) contribute to our determination of theme.
We write test prompts, then, asking students to express back to us our transmitted understanding of the work of literature in composition form that we may evaluate, using the written composition scoring guide, what they have remembered . We test how well the student has internalized our idea of the meaning of the work and how well the student writes, not student reading skill.
If we taught literature to indoctrinate our students with accepted readings of selected works of literature, that method would not be a problem. The makers of the GSE, though, contend that transmitting accepted interpretations of particular works is not why we teach literature.
Instead, we teach to enable students to develop aesthetic judgment, rhetorical awareness and make reasonable inferences from what they have read. About the only way we can test their ability to read literature (as opposed to decode it or remember what they have been told about its meaning) is by providing them an opportunity to examine unfamiliar works and talk about them. I use the word "talk" purposely. The GSE essay scorer attempts to assess reading and literature in a manner more akin to listening to students think out loud about a passage than to reading an organized essay about that passage.
Consider for example a 1998 GSE reading, "A Sea Worry" by Maxine Hong Kingston. One of three student-response questions states "Several different impressions of the sensations of surfing are presented in the passage. Which one do you believe is the best? Explain why." A score point 6 response to that prompt: The most captivating impression of surfing presented in the passage was when Bradford Baker wrote, ". . .Round and pregnant in emptiness I slide, laughing, into the sun, into the night." Not only does this quote personify the chamber and amazing sensations that are achieved, but it uses enticing language. Every word in the description is a "showing" word--which lets the reader recreate the experience in their head, putting themselves on the board, inside the chamber.
This perceptive aesthetic and rhetorical analysis shows a student conscious of style: "personification," "amazing sensations and enticing language," "'showing' word" are supported by the word "pregnant" in the quotation and concrete diction ("round," "slide," "laughing," "sun," "night"). Another prompt asks students to "Describe the author's style in writing this selection. Use samples from the text to support your description." A score point 6 response: Maxine Hong Kingston writes with honesty and openness. She makes the reader feel like they are being spoken to, not written to. For example, in lines 64-66 she writes, "Since Joseph and Marty were considerate of us, they stopped after two hours, and we took them out for breakfast. We kept asking them how it felt, so they would not lose language." Here, you feel like you have just overheard a mother gossiping to another mother she reveals her motivation. This kind of honesty makes the passage enjoyable and almost humorous.
The words "honesty," "openness," the idea that Kingston's writing seems more conversational than written, speak also to matters of style. The "Honesty" and "openness" which the student perceives are visible in Kingston's shift from an initial critical attitude (surfing is mindless) to an acceptance resulting from the experiences she writes about. The student uses convincing textual evidence ("since Joseph and Marty were considerate of us," and "we kept asking them how it felt, so they would not lose language") to show that acceptance.
The third prompt: "In the opening paragraph, the narrator says that her son thinks that body-surfing is his 'job.' In the final paragraph, she says she 'find(s) some comfort in the stream of commuter traffic' as men pass Sandy Beach on their way to work. Discuss what the narrator is suggesting about the differences between the opening and closing of the story."
A score point 6 response: This passage represents Kingston's acceptance of her son's pastimes. She takes the reader on the thought process she experiences: at first she was ignorant to their experience and by the end she accepts that she can't understand all of the emotions and sensations, yet she approves on some level. In the opening, Kingston is explaining how she feels that surfing is detracting her son's summer . . . and he is being fooled into believing that he goes to the ocean each morning to "work." In the closing, Kingston is describing how she has some approval of her son's decision, yet she finds much comfort in the many adults who pass the beach each day on he way to work. This was her way of communicating that she hopes with his maturing, he will realize other important aspects of his life that will need to be fulfilled, like earning a living (versus becoming a beach bum).
Here the student writer very clearly recognizes the subtle shift in Kingston's attitude from disapproval of surfing to a degree of appreciation tempered by the hope that her son will outgrow his obsession with that activity, showing the student writer's thorough understanding of the text. Such assessment techniques require us, perhaps, to change our attitudes toward student response. Those of us who are used to teaching a particular interpretation of a work of literature have built a critical edifice brick by brick. When we teach, we have an extensive arsenal of critical interpretation and evidence to protect our students (and ourselves) from errors of inexperience, facile and frequently wrong interpretations, etc. When we ask questions, frequently we do not really want student answers; we want students to tell us what we want to hear and, rather disingenuously, continually rephrase questions until we have elicited the answers we want. Authentic assessment of reading/literature, however, demands that we settle for less than such an edifice from our students who mainly see texts for the first time in the assessment.
We must credit reasonable if shaky inferences even though our experienced and studied response to the details of the work of literature might lead to more well-founded conclusions. We must, as in the student sample responses above, be able to see in small details and few words, hints of insight rather than hold out for the sort of elaboration that we might reasonably expect from students who have studied a work extensively and have the confidence that derives from expressing ideas validated previously in class discussion and lecture. We have to be more willing to consider and discuss variant readings, recognizing that while we or our favorite criticism of a work might not draw the inference that students do, nevertheless, students may have drawn reasonable inferences from the evidence. Similarly, we will have to be willing to recognize that no matter how much we might agree with the inferences students draw, absent a clear line of reasoning from evidence to conclusion, we cannot credit those inferences simply because we agree with them. What is important is not that they right but that they are reasoned.
The potential influence of such assessments on teaching seems to me profound. If we teach literature as simply teaching decoding and our assessment of student learning is restricted to students being able to recall events (aided by multiple choice tests, perhaps) or to parrot back teacher-approved interpretations, we do little to enable our students to develop the habits of mind (drawing inferences, seeing the significance of particular details, diction, or other rhetorical choices) of good readers.
Our classroom teaching must become an opportunity for our students to respond to literature orally and in writing in an atmosphere open to variant reading, questioning any and all readings, even the conventionally accepted. Such teaching requires us to be tolerant of ignorance and inexperience, allowing students to be wrong without being told they are wrong, recognizing that learning to read is more important than the "correct" interpretation of some classic or other.
The California Language Arts Standards: High School includes Standard 2. Reading/Comprehension, which asks students "to comprehend, interpret, evaluate. . .a wide range of materials. . ." "[S]tudents in high school who meet this standard will: Respond to fiction. . .using critical, interpretive, and evaluative processes and produce evidence that they can do the following: Identify the author's perspective. . .Discuss the impact of authors' word choice and content. . .Acknowledge the validity of plausible interpretations of a piece of literature. . .Express initial and tentative interpretations of the literary work and use these as a starting place for developing and testing later interpretations. . .Put ideas into their own words. . .Explain the reasons for a character's actions, taking into account the situation and basic motivation of the character. . .Make inferences and draw conclusions about contexts, events, characters, and settings. . .Demonstrate evidence of understanding human conditions exemplified in literature."
The GSE Reading/Literature exam, now in its infancy, promises to assess the extent to which students meet those standards. More importantly, it encourages us to focus more on teaching the skills necessary for students to arrive independently at understanding and insight than on transmitting to our students what we have decided is the "meaning" of the work. If we want our students to meet the California Language Arts Standards, we must begin to teach literature in ways that encourage students to respond freshly to works of literature rather than to demonstrate their composing skills by parroting back to us what we have taught them a work means. It also means that we must develop for our classroom use assessment instruments like the GSE, instruments that use works students have not seen previous to assessment and that test the students' abilities to understand, interpret, evaluate, draw inferences.
I suppose it might be argued that I advocate teaching to the test, and in a sense I do. I advocate practices that develop reading skills, not those that inhibit such skills by continually telling students that they cannot read and the teacher is right about what a work means. I teach to a test that I am convinced helps us to teach literature more effectively.
-Jim Speakman teaches English in Sacramento and holds a Ph.D. in English from UC Davis.
Standards for Teachers: When Teachers Strive
Merit pay for teachers who exhibit exemplary practice has long been a hot issue in education circles. Itís not a question of whether or not there are teachers who deserve to be financially rewarded for their superior teaching, but who is going to determine which teachers receive additional compensation. In 1987 a group of educators convened to tackle this problem. What resulted was the formation of the 62 member, mostly classroom teachers, National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.
Since that time the NBPTS has developed a set of high, rigorous standards which define what an exemplary teacher should know and be able to do, and an assessment to measure when demonstrated teaching practice meets those standards. The assessment takes the form of a written portfolio focusing on an examination of student work, two videos of classroom practice, and four written examinations. National Board certification is a symbol of commitment to excellence in teaching.
Offered on a voluntary basis, the advanced system of National Board Certification complements, but does not replace, state licensing. While state licensing systems set entry-level standards for novice teachers, National Board Certification establishes high standards for experienced teachers.
The core propositions are: Teachers are committed to students and their learning; know the subjects they teach and how to teach those subjects to students; are responsible for managing and monitoring student learning; think systematically about their practice and learn from experience; are members of learning communities.
The National Board currently offers 18 certificates with plans to have 30 certification fields by 2002. The certificates are structured around student development levels and subject(s) taught. Each set of standards represents the professional consensus on the critical aspects of teaching in each certification area. The Standards are rigorous, requiring experienced teachers to view their students, and themselves, in ways they may not have done before. Teachers are required to describe, analyze, and reflect on their practices and how those practices affect their students' learning.
For the majority of teachers, reflecting on their practices is not part of their regular routine. The school year is filled with students, lesson plans, grading, parent conferences, professional development activities, and general school business and politics. Little time is left for maintaining reflective journals, for deep analysis of how their teaching practices affect their students. The National Board Certification process requires precisely this reflection from its candidates. Whether or not a candidate achieves certification in the first year, everyone who undergoes this intensive self-scrutiny of oneís teaching practice benefits of including the students.
I first began reading about the National Board in 1993 when articles appeared in the Kappan, Teacher magazine, and several other professional journals. I was already a writing fellow, teacher researcher, had maxed out on salary points. In short, I had "been there and done that" in terms of available professional development. I wanted more. National Board Certification was the next challenge, but I knew I couldnít do it alone. I would need a group of supportive teachers, ideally also working toward certification, to help me analyze my teaching practice.
With the encouragement and guidance of UCLAís Center X Director of Outreach Programs, Rae Jeane Williams, a group of teachers met for three days in June 1997at the UCLA campus begin the process of analyzing and reflecting upon our work in the classroom. One teacher dropped out after the third day realizing that she was not ready to undergo this rigorous self-assessment. She would try another year. We met monthly at UCLA throughout the school year. Candidates also met frequently with their small, self-selected cadres.
Each member of our group agreed to pay the $2,000 fee to the National Board program with no assurance of either passing or of any monetary bonus if they did achieve certification. They came together to study, to continue to grow as professionals, and to be treated as professionals. They maintained reflective logs which they periodically shared with one another. The first entry asked them to reflect on why they were seeking National Certification. Their responses included: C.D. (middle childhood): Recognition of my profession as a profession.
Recognition that not just anyone can walk off the street and do my job. K.H. (middle childhood): To take a realistic and rigorous look at my teaching practices. I do not want to get into that "Seasoned Teacher's Rut." M.F. (middle childhood, Principal): To improve myself, the way I teach, the way I evaluate teachers, the way I empower my teachers to be the best they can be.
V.W. (language arts): Professionalism in my field and merit pay. A.R. (early childhood): To improve my skills, to validate 15 years of hard dedicated work, to demonstrate my commitment and to enhance my marketability. S.R. (early childhood): I've been in teaching for 12 years, mostly in the inner-city. What most upsets me is the perception of urban inner-city teachers as less than competent professionals. I believe that a NBPTS certificate would dispel the myth of the bad urban teacher.
For those first three days we examined what we did in our own classrooms. We examined our student samples, we described, analyzed, and reflected upon them. We saw the inadequacies of our first drafts to explain how these student samples reflected the reality of our classrooms and of our teaching practices. So we revised, critiqued, and revised yet again. As we continued to examine our students' work we realized that some of our favorite lessons, curriculum we loved to teach, didn't result in the student learning we thought was happening. So we rethought the lessons, vowing to return to our classrooms and to focus more on our students and less on ourselves.
We began the process of updating ourselves on what was happening in educational research and committed to reading several research texts over the coming months. We met in the fall to share what we read and discuss how the information presented in the research was reflected in our students and our teaching. The self-examination and the research studies impacted us deeply. Two months into the new semester we were already reporting changes. In an effort to get to know our students better, faster, we all did student surveys and learned about their homes and families, their TV viewing habits, what they liked and didn't like about school. Some of us felt more empowered, others doubted everything we did. In searching for excellence we saw by how much we were falling short. After only two months we stepped back to examine what was happening to us.
B.K.: I am now aware of the modalities in which my students learn. My science classes are more addressed to interdisciplinary teaching, integrating all of the subjects. I look at what I am doing very analytically now.
R.R.:I feel what I am doing is by no means adequate. I look at everything differently. Especially the reading assignments make me see that it is I who has to change/move to get to the place where I can meet student needs. This came up when I was writing report card comments for students who arenít doing so well ? What we can do to make them more successful instead of how they have to change.
L.B. I am focusing more on my class which keeps me from thinking about my principal and school. I'm a little more in tune to subtle changes in my students.
C.D.: More and more I am aware of the chasm between myself and other teachers. I obviously am more or less alone in having a vision of a profession that acts professionally and gets treated professionally.
R.L.: I'm learning why what I do works. I always knew I was a good teacher, but I've never tried to figure out why. Most of our observations focused on our classroom and our teaching, but four months into the program candidate L. M. reported: Since I began the program in June I have noticed 20% more gray hair and my nails have all but disappeared.
We videotaped our classrooms in November and December and continued through the first months of the year. Candidate Vivian Wallick provided us all with video tips learned from a professional cameraman. Another example of how the candidates helped one another. There was no competition between candidates in the group. We brought the videos to our monthly meetings and in cramped rooms with two VCRs going, we watched ourselves on screen and noted our peers' comments and criticisms.
In January many experienced a slump. Too much work, some self-doubt, we needed a break, but the pace was due to pick up. When our $1500 checks were due, and no grant money was forthcoming, many considered dropping out. Small cohort groups had been meeting since the fall, some semi-monthly, some twice weekly and it was these professional alliances and the cheerleaders at Center X which kept the program going and the candidatesí motivation high. And then we had a wonderful surprise.
Los Angeles Mayor Richard Riordan invited us to a press conference at Foshay Learning Center, the school site of the only certified teacher in LAUSD. Secretary of Education Richard Riley was visiting and wanted to meet with us. Mayor Riordan's foundation awarded each candidate $500 to help offset the $2000 fee.
As facilitators, Rae Jean and I kept candidates abreast of all the latest news concerning NB Certification. We acted as go-betweens, writing letters to their principals when they needed time off or video equipment. We attempted to shield them from everything but their students and their portfolios. We asked principals to excuse them from extra duties, and in some cases the principals complied.
By April 24th, 1997 18 candidates mailed their completed portfolios to the National Board in Texas and got ready for the four upcoming assessments to be taken between June 1 and August 18 depending on specializations and candidates' preferences.
We met again in May, after all the portfolios were mailed, and talked about the year we had spent together with the certification process. G.B. said it for all of us: This was the most difficult task I have ever had to do and I did the best I could. For me this is a win-win situation. It was difficult, time consuming, and frustrating, but each line I wrote I became more focused, more determined to describe what my students were doing in the classroom and how it was impacting their lives. I have learned a lot from the program and my teaching will never be the same.
We learned : All teachers need a foundation in the current research; university affiliation is helpful in determining what research to study; teachers need to hone their writing skills; the three-day intensive workshop helped put everyone in the right frame of mind; a study group is a must. It provides guidance and focus.
We learned that taking the time to examine our practices contributes to our students' achievements. When we treat ourselves as professionals, take our work seriously, we act more professionally. Our candidates had very definite ideas how they could best be used by their schools and Districts once they receive certification. They agreed that they are most helpful in the classroom. They are offering their classrooms for observation by both new, inexperienced teachers and by veterans. They are able workshop leaders who can guide teachers as they focus on their students' learning.
On November 11, 1998 our 18 candidates received notification from the National Board. 9 achieved certification, the other 9 came very close ñone missed by one 7 points out of a possible 400óand would retake those areas where their scores were the lowest. All 18 are winners. We are evidence that quality education happens one classroom at a time.
In the summer of 1997 thirty-seven teachers joined the UCLA NBPTS Project. There are now 1800 Certified teachers in the United States with another 3800 working towards certification in 1989. About the issue of merit payó33 states currently have some form of merit pay for Board Certified Teachers. Florida offers 20% salary raise, LAUSD offers a 15% increase, other states/Districts pay the $2000 fee for candidates. Nearly every state offers credential reciprocity allowing Certified teachers to move their credential from state to state.
To be eligible for certification one must be credentialled, must have taught for 3 years or more, and must be in the classroom at least part time. Finally, a way to continue to develop professionally, and to be rewarded for excellence, without leaving the classroom.
Adrienne Mack, National Board Certified, teaches at Birmingham High School in Los Angeles Unified School District and directs the UCLA NBPTS Project. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim Speakman, a regular contributor to this journal, describes how the Golden State Reading/Literature exam measures students¹ ability to meet high school reading comprehension standards. He believes that this test can help us teach literature more effectively. I invite you to read and decide for yourself.
California English welcomes reader response. Please address all mailed correspondence to 15332 Antioch Street #539, Pacific Palisades, CA 90272, or e-mail me at email@example.com.
The question, then, is how do we affect the mandates in order to maintain curricular balance, personal sanity, and rational perspective? How do we change the system to better match what we know to be best practice? CATE unites us throughout the state of California in a quest to strengthen our separate individual concerns into a strong group force.
The fact that you are reading this magazine indicates you are a CATE member, so you should know what CATE is doing to help solve the conundrum of the test. We have both an appointed CATE Board member, Don Mayfield (who is a curriculum specialist at the San Diego County Education Department) and a professional legislative advocate, Martha Zaragoza-Diaz (who lives in Sacramento and serves as our Policy Analyst) working to watch developments in the legislature and report them to you in a timely manner so that you can contact your elected officials to inform them of what we want and need. In addition to monthly informational summaries posted on CATENet, Don has written several CommuniCATE newsletters this year to aid you in knowing what to do with such diverse issues as censorship and pending legislation. Obviously, we need to affect legislation so that it demands what we need, ways of evaluating that actually measure excellence in integrated response, and both knowledge of what is happening and advocacy of what should be are critical.
Additionally, there are individuals whose affiliation with CATE leads to appointment to represent the "teacher" voice on State committees. For example, your editor, Pacific Palisades resident Carol Jago, has served on the SAT committee, trying to influence the nature of that test, and San Diegan Marilyn Miles recently assisted in designing the State workshops to "roll out" the new State Language Arts Framework. Soon there will be an opportunity for working on the Reading List for the State.
CATE also utilizes the united strength of you, our members, in formulating policy statements which we disseminate widely to people in the California Department of Education, the State Board of Education, the Governor and legislature, and to leaders in government and education at all levels. The annual convention in February (held this year in Burbank) brings together elected delegates to the Resolutions Committee, headed by Jim Kliegl of Lindsay, CA. That group acts as a clearinghouse to focus and sharpen ideas which are voted on at the Annual Business Meeting and then communicated as our official policy statements to the appropriate venues for advocacy.
And, finally, YOU have the daily opportunity to send a message to either CATENet, the email listserv moderated by San Franciscan Jim Burke, or CATEWeb, the internet web site coordinated by Badger, CA, resident Larry Jordan. If you use either of these, you, personally, are potentially reaching thousands of people and helping further the discussion of what should happen in the question of how standards are and will be defined and enforced.
Yes, standards are the classic horned dilemma--horns that hurt us by
insisting on unthinking compliance, but a body that arouses us to reconsider
past practice and help produce sound future procedures. CATE is here
to insist/act on your behalf. Invite others to join in membership to
strengthen that voice.