California English Journal
Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Test? Easing
Clarissa enters her classroom, room 21, crying. She says to her teacher, Ms. Rojas, "my mom stays that I'll have to stay back if I don't do good on the test." Ms. Rojas wipes the tears from her eyes and tells Clarissa not to worry. Ms. Rojas knows that Clarissa is not the only student in her second grade classroom who is worried about the "big test" that they have to take in a couple of weeks. She knows that there has been a lot of talk among the teachers and family members about the importance of this test - student retention, teacher incentives, and administrator job security are all tied to this one event.
The more Ms. Rojas thinks about Clarissa and the students in her class, the more she realizes that their stress is likely to depress their scores. She knows from her own experience that the fear she felt of tests in college often resulted in her not performing as well as she could. She decides to take action!
After lunch, Ms. Rojas changes the classroom routine. She invites her second graders who will take the "big test" for the first time to sing along with her. She starts to sing "Who's afraid of the big bad wolf." She suddenly stops mid-word and reveals a large piece of chart paper on which she has re-written the words to the song (see Table 1). Together, the class sings the new words while the music plays in the background (background music available at: http://www.niehs.nih.gov/kids/lyrics/badwolf.htm). By the time they finish singing, Ms. Rojas sees that her students are laughing and that the anxiety that she felt in the morning has been reduced. At that very moment, she decides to make "the big test" part of her curriculum.
The next day, Ms. Rojas reads aloud Testing Miss Malarkey (Finchler, 2000) to her class. During the read aloud, she often stops to ask students questions and invite them into the book. For example, she paused on the page that shows Mrs. Magenta, the art teacher, teaching students how to color in the little circles. Ms. Rojas asked her students if they had ever seen those little circles. Several of them had. A few students shook their heads no with a worried look on their faces. Ms. Rojas looked at the students in her class and said, "Well, we'll just have to ask Mr. Greene our art teacher to come in and show us all about circles."
Later in the book, the characters trade food during lunch. Evette made the connection between the book and her recent lunchroom experiences. Evette said, "I traded my food with Brandy and she traded with Jasmine, just like Adam and Hanna traded in the book." Ms. Rojas was happy to see that her students were once again focused on the books in their classroom.
Two days later, during the morning opening, Ms. Rojas informed her second-graders that she found another book about tests. She read aloud the first couple of pages of Arthur and the True Francine (Brown, 1981) and then said that she would add the book to her classroom library if anyone wanted to learn more about what happens with Arthur, Francine, and Muffy when they have a test. Of course, the whole class wanted to read this book during independent reading time!
Ms. Rojas also wanted her students to understand something about test construction. She started with a new task for her students in their interactive journals. She invited students to create test items for her in their journals when they finished their daily entry. She promised to answer the test questions that they created. Each student could then check her answers on their test. Of course, Ms. Rojas also used this opportunity to provide students feedback about the type of questions they created and how these questions might be on the test they would take in a few weeks. On the first day, Razia wrote, "What kind of dog do I have?" Ms. Rojas guessed that Razia had a Dalmatian like the ones in the movie. Razia told Ms. Rojas that she was wrong - she had a brown dog. This provided Ms. Rojas the opportunity to talk with Razia about information that the person making the tests thinks that people have and the way to ask specific questions.
This interactive journal activity soon became a whole class activity. Each day, students submitted questions to Ms. Rojas. After reviewing the questions for accuracy and appropriateness, she typed them into her computer. She used her LCD projector to share the student-generated questions. She also created sample "bubble-in" answer forms for her students to use so that they would be familiar with the format that would be required on "the big test."
The day before the test, Ms. Rojas read aloud Hooray for Diffendoofer Day! (Seuss, Prelutsky, & Smith, 1998) to her class. When she first held up the book, Robert said, "We're too old for Dr. Seuss." Ms. Rojas informed her class that Dr. Seuss and some of his friends wrote a book about a test. There was a hush in room 21 as Ms. Rojas began to read. Soon enough, the whole class was laughing along with the book. Again, Ms. Rojas asked questions along the way. At the end of the book, she asked them if they remember being afraid of the big, bad test. Several students shook their heads yes, and Clarissa said, "One time, I cried about the test, but it's not that bad. I'm not afraid of the big, bad test." Ms. Rojas ended her day that day with another round of "Who's Afraid of the Big, Bad Test."
Ms. Rojas realizes that the test is important and that it is her responsibility to ensure that her students are ready. She understands the need to document student progress. She is also wise enough to know that there is more to test performance than content knowledge. She believes that it is also her responsibility to guarantee that her students are not afraid of the test, that they do not feel the nauseous during the test, and that the test does not stifle their future learning.
While words like "accountability" and "standards" fetter our profession with false notions of how to educate children, we sink further into a morass of educational reform, which does nothing more than provide a feckless path down the road to mediocrity. But I have accepted this. This is the political reality and if I am to be a true professional, I must find ways to provide quality education to my students while politicians look for new ways to raise polling data.
At its core, the standards movement is a good thing. I have read through the California State English Standards and I found nothing there that is disagreeable, redundant or pointless. I sat pondering this while trying to find meaningful ways to teach the Transcendentalists to my students. I wanted to apply these standards directly to my lesson to show students and even their parents that this is what teachers do each day. I was in search of a way to make this important part of American culture come alive not only because it is important on such assessments as the Stanford 9 and SAT, but also because it encompasses so much of what America as an idea stands for. To understand, to digest Transcendentalism, is to capture the American psyche from before the Civil War on. California English Standard 3.2 under Reading dictates that students should be able to, "Compare and contrast the presentation of a similar theme or topic across genres to explain how the selection of genre shapes the theme or topic." I sat looking at this particular standard for a long time. This is the one that would shape the assignment. The Transcendental movement in America is so important precisely because it crosses genres. It is philosophy, religion, literature and history all wrapped up in one. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, the two men given the most credit for the movement, gave voice to the yearning of the soul and gave it a place to rest, take ease and be at peace in a time of stifling conformity both philosophically and religiously. This is where I chose to begin my lesson. Students were studying the Civil War in their history classes and by learning the writings of Emerson and Thoreau and many others, they would begin to see more than just generals and politicians.
Teaching the Transcendentalists in a cold, antiseptic way would be antithetical to the admonishments of Emerson and Thoreau. Both believed in trusting experience and intuition and both believed optimistically in the capabilities of human beings. Reading books by modern day authors like Annie Dillard, David Guterson, Norman Maclean, Edward Abbey and Charles Frasier, students see Transcendentalism in the late 20th century and how it has blossomed into much more than just a literary movement, but also a way of life. The first part of the unit, after reading selected texts by Emerson and Thoreau, is for students to select a book by one of the aforementioned authors. Using literature circles, students read Snow Falling on Cedars by Guterson, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard's Pulitzer Prize winning book, Desert Solitaire by Abbey, A River Runs Through It by Norman Maclean, Cold Mountain by Charles Frasier and Guterson's East Of The Mountains. Some students even chose to read the entire text of Thoreau's Walden that is only excerpted in their textbooks. This component of the unit asked students to read outside of class and their literature circles were responsible for keeping all group members on task. The responsibility of each group was to seek important Transcendental themes in their books and be ready to present and discuss them and their correlation to the earlier writings of their counterparts. I ran into stumbling blocks here because I originally only allowed about four days for this task after the books had been read. I had to extend it to by another week as I saw students truly working on the project, but simply not having enough time to finish tasks.
Standard 3.12 under Reading states, that students should be able to "analyze the way in which a work of literature is related to the themes and issues of a historical period." In this way, students gain a broader understanding of work as it relates to the lives of those doing the writing. The Transcendentalists were the first abolitionists. Their tracts on the subject were at the heart of New England's rabid abolitionist movement, which ultimately persuaded Abraham Lincoln to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. Further, Henry David Thoreau's treatise on Civil Disobedience was written in direct response to the Mexican-American War. It survived the generations to be adapted by Mohandas Ghandi in his struggle for Indian sovereignty and Martin Luther King Jr. in his leading the struggle for Civil Rights in America. As students read selections from Civil Disobedience, they see its ghost in their history classes as the great slavery debate is put before them while studying the Civil War. While presenting Transcendentalism as a philosophy, students also discuss its practical, historical applications.
The Standards section on Speaking Applications is extensive and specific in what students should know. Some of what it dictates is, "Deliver expository presentations: a) Marshal evidence in support of a thesis and related claims, including information on all relevant perspectives. b) Convey information and ideas from primary and secondary sources accurately and coherently." In this same sub-category is letter "d" which states: "Include visual aids by employing appropriate technology to organize and display information " A presentation that culls together components from outside reading sources, in-class texts, interviews and discussion with other students and staff and includes a Power Point or computer generated overhead visual aid, allows students to get beyond the musty pages and force Transcendentalism to become part of their world.
Speaking Applications standard 2.5 reads, "Deliver persuasive arguments (including evaluation and analysis of problems and solutions and causes and effects)." Student presentations, in order to be truly transcendental in their own right, had to take modern day problems and issues and view them through the lens of Transcendentalism. How would Emerson or Thoreau see a presidential scandal? Would they see the Internet as valuable and important? What would Transcendentalists think of the problems facing the Mid-East? This is the final component to the unit. Once students have discussed cogent precepts of this philosophy, its history and its current adherents, they must then apply the ideas they have shared to modern day issues and present a reasonable and detailed discussion about how it would be viewed by Emerson, Thoreau, et. Al. The culmination of their work would be not only a theoretical understanding, but also a practical and working one of the Transcendental ideas. In a thesis and research driven oral report, students capture the tenets, history, proponents, practical applications and even future of Transcendentalism.
In their first experience with this after reading Emerson's essay, The American Scholar, I asked them which candidate in this election year they thought Transcendentalists would choose. I was convinced I would get Ralph Nader as an answer, or possibly Harry Browne, the Libertarian candidate. Instead, hands shot up almost immediately and the answer given was, "it wouldn't matter to Emerson because he didn't believe in societal leadership." The point had been made.
This is only one unit in a long school year and it only makes a difference if the students respond to it. So far, my results are positive with strong group performances that indicate understanding and even empathy with the Transcendentalists. Perhaps while waging political battles, we must also prepare our students to wage them. None of us wants to see our curriculum narrowed down to a few tests. If we show students, parents and our communities that what we are teaching is not only standards based, but critical for forming independent, thinking citizens of a free republic, we will have a chance at real reform. These citizens will be judged and rewarded far more for their ability to apply practical and intelligent ideas to new situations than on how quickly they can formulate answers to theoretical questions.
Mark Storer is an English teacher at Camarillo High School and Moorpark College in Ventura County, California. He is also a South Coast Writing Project Alum and a freelance writer. His wife Susan and he expect their first child in April.
Tests Test Us All
As a classroom teacher,
preparing my students for the Stanford Nine was
Never once did I think the test could teach to me.
Out of the classroom for
the year, working with teams of teachers on
And the test is more rigorous
than simply requiring students to answer
How often do English teachers
purposefully incorporate functional text into
Don't get me wrong. Teachers
shouldn't toss out To Kill a Mockingbird, load
In the vocabulary section,
students are also challenged to think at
Like skateboarders, students
need to build stamina before they can do back
The same can be said for
teaching vocabulary context clues. Why confine
During a recent meeting
with teachers from a low-performing inner city
It's easier to blame a test
than take a close look at what we're teaching,
Tapping into prior knowledge;
you, asking your students what they know
Take an abstract concept
like an API score. What would students say if
Coaches and lobbyists at
organizations such as The Achievement Council in
This agenda calls for increased
professional development in literacy and
At first glance, this agenda
may not look attractive to teachers used to
It's easy to write off the
Stanford Nine as an intrusion into the
About the Author
In the coming months California students will be sitting for the STAR 9 test that will include a direct writing sample in grades 4 and 7, Golden State exams, AP tests, and the first administration of the high school exit exam. This issue of California English focuses on testing and the effects of standardized testing on teaching and learning. I would like to share my thoughts on the exit exam.
Beginning with students in 9th grade and forever after - or at least until California law changes - no one will be awarded a high school diploma without passing an exit exam. Putting aside my personal feelings about the mandate, I worry that so few parents and students know this. I also worry that high schools are unprepared for how the test is likely to change how they do business.
On March 7, 2001, students will sit for the language arts portion of the High School Exit Exam and on March 13 for the mathematics portion. This first administration of the test is voluntary and only for practice, but in the fall of 2001, all tenth grade students must sit for the exam. Given that results of the March test will be sent to schools within 8 weeks, my guess is that most parents and schools will want their ninth graders to take the exam this spring in order to identify students who need intensive summer school help. Kids will have many chances to retake the test throughout their high school years and will be able to "bank" a passing score in either language arts or math. What they won't be able to do is graduate from high school without passing both portions of the test. This includes special education students as well as English language learners.
The exit exam in language arts has two parts, reading and writing. In the reading section, students must answer multiple-choice questions based on passages from literature - fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and drama - as well as from informational texts. In the writing section, students will answer questions on usage and mechanics and write two short essays, one based upon a passage they have answered reading questions about.
California's exit exam is a serious test. It is also seriously standards-based. For example, three items on every form will test students' mastery of standard 3.7 which demands that they "Recognize and understand the significance of various literary devices, including figurative language, imagery, allegory, and symbolism, and explain their appeal." In order for students to answer questions based on this standard correctly, they will need instruction that includes the study of rich, challenging literature. They also need to learn the language of literature study.
Making this happen for every student is not going to be easy. Many young people who will be sitting for the test this spring have very poor reading skills and limited academic vocabulary. The solution is not a crash course in exit exam preparation but rather a long hard look at what goes on inside high school English classrooms. Are students writing regularly and getting feedback from a teacher on their papers? Have all students had the opportunity to read poetry and to talk about the poet's purpose and tone? If schools can't answer yes to these questions, they aren't offering students the instruction they need to earn a diploma.
For a more detailed description of the specific California language arts standards that test items reflect, go to http://www.cde.ca.gov/statetests/hsee/tguides.html. The California Department of Education web site also offers answers to frequently asked questions. My concern is that hardly anyone is asking questions, particularly the one that only time can answer, "Will California's exit exam raise achievement or cause students to drop out?" My gut feeling is that it will probably do both.