It’s Spring, and a Young Person’s Fancy Turns To…

First, let me just comment that I am far more dependent upon caffeine than I thought.  Since I’m having a mild flare-up of Meniere’s disease (which I have lived with for years with very little real impairment), I am trying to do what the doctor told me to do a long time ago: cut down salt and cut out caffeine.  I am seriously dragging ass without my fully leaded tea throughout the day.

On the advice of my agent, I am reworking my current project.  Don’t let anyone fool you into thinking that writing is not hard work.

But because it’s “that time of the year,” I’m going to write about CSAP—the Colorado Student Assessment Program.  We are one day away from finishing.  This year I taught more directly to the test than ever before, because we are under a lot of pressure to raise our writing scores—specifically the scores of kids who’ve been consistently scoring low throughout their school careers.  I went online to the Colorado Department of Education’s CSAP page, got old, released prompts, and analyzed which responses got which scores and why, given the rubric.  I have suspected for years that we weren’t teaching the right kind of writing; we kept getting stuck on all that point-evidence-analysis stuff that stands students in good stead in college, and I was right.  The key to the CSAP is lots of description and lots of emotion.  An emotional, adjective and adverb-laden anecdote goes much further on the CSAP than a logical argument.  We spent weeks on coming up with emotional anecdotes and using lots of “descriptive words.”  It reminds me of Catcher in the Rye, when Stradlater tells Holden it doesn’t matter what he writes, so long as it’s “descriptive as hell.”

The kids all said that it had never occurred to them that this was what they were supposed to do.  This writing activity looked so little like anything else they did in English (like writing researched essays or reactions to literature) that they’d had no idea what they were supposed to do.  As teachers, we didn’t know either.  All this stuff is kind of buried on the CDE website.  We’ve been trying (without success) to raise scores by assigning more “good” writing with research and evidence and stuff.

On the first day, I had a kid screwing around throughout the test.  I’d correct one behavior, then he’d come up with another.  The last straw was when he finished the test and pulled out an iPod, sticking the earbud in his ear.  That action is enough to invalidate the whole room’s scores.  (And you need to understand—that doesn’t mean their scores wouldn’t average in—it would mean they’d all average in as zeros.)  Because he no longer had a test book in front of him and I caught it immediately and booted him, we saved the rest of the scores.

The rest of the kids were really upset and worried that it would invalidate theirs, so it’s clear that they care about how they do.  I take this as a good sign.  Very often, kids don’t care, because they aren’t held accountable for their scores in any way.  It’s not an exit exam, colleges don’t look at the score—there’s no obvious harm or benefit to them.  Before we started what I came to call the “gaming the CSAP unit,” I explained to the kids that their test scores were being used as justification for watering down the curriculum to the point that they would be completely unprepared for college.  “Do us all a favor,” I told them.  “Do your best, play the game, get the scores so that we teachers can get back to the task of getting you ready for college.”  Kids have pretty unerring bullshit detectors; they don’t buy the “you never know, colleges might start looking at these scores someday.”  They appreciate honesty.  Telling them, “Hey, the higher-ups think you’re idiots and are treating you that way in curriculum decisions; punch up your game” works.

On the first day (Tuesday of last week), a couple of kids did the usual bit of finishing 20 minutes early and handing in their books with blanks.  Later, in class, I told them that I’d better not see any more of that—not one test turned in early that is not 100% filled in, and I was reading the answers, so they’d better not be half-assed or sarcastic (which they often have been in the past).  From that point on, I can at least attest that my little test group of 15 has been working their butts off.

Today they did part one of the science test and part six of the reading and writing.  I looked at their final writing sample, and while some were pretty good, a lot were pure crap.  For God’s sake.  This is their sixth hour of being tested on reading and writing.  They’d already written an extended sample of several pages last week.  They’re fried.  Of course, they just started science today.  After eight hours of testing in other subjects, no wonder the kids’ science scores generally aren’t stellar.  The kids have just had it.  As a colleague of mine said, “If Harvard can look at the results of a three-hour test, the ACT, and get the information they need, why do our kids need to test for twelve hours?”  What could the state possibly get from the second writing sample they couldn’t get from the first?  Both prompts are what I call puppy-kitty topics.  I had to take a Klingon blood oath not to reveal the questions, but one they used years ago that’s been released is “What is a hero and who is yours?”

Today, all the kids, including the ones who work really hard and use every minute, finished the science part at least ten minutes early.  On the writing session (which was allotted five fewer minutes than the science portion), several kids did not finish and did not get to answer the final writing prompt, though it’s worth a lot of points.

How will this make our schools better?  I just don’t get it.

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Paula is an author of historical fiction as well as a wife, mom, and teacher.
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2 Responses to It’s Spring, and a Young Person’s Fancy Turns To…

  1. Fowl Ideas says:

    When I was a lowly private working hard to maintain a reputation as the least ambitious soldier in the United States Army, someone passed around a printed satire of what you’re describing.

    The commanding general writes an order to be distributed to all of his soldiers. I don’t remember what the order was but it was something that soldiers would reasonably be expected to do. As the order passes through the hot, sweaty hands of each successively lower ranking officer, they all see fit to add something, possibly to feel as though they are improving upon it. By the time it reaches the troops, they find themselves crawling around in a field in rain coats and pink slippers looking for bugs or something equally stupid and unproductive.

    I have since run across a corporate equivalent.

    Possibly, the test that you are describing began its life under similar circumstances.

    • admin says:

      I know it sounds paranoid, but I think the test is designed for kids to score poorly. And every year, the test looks different and the data gathered is evaluated differently. There’s nothing remotely standardized about it. I’m telling you, in terms of curriculum, it’s the Wack-a-mole philosophy of education: what will be on test next year? And the pro-voucher, pro-privatization crowd is laughing their butts off watching us become the instrument of our own demise trying to play their loaded game.

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