Thursday, January 27, 2011

Fake Reading

We have just finished the End of Course SOL series for our 11th grade students.  The barrier test for graduation lies in the English SOLs.  All students must pass both the Writing and Reading tests prior to graduating or they will not receive a valid diploma.  The two tests represent a minimum competency.

Basic literacy is the most important outcome for any education.  All graduates should be able to read and write well enough to both receive and extend a clear message.

But as I work with students who struggle on the Reading test, I have more and more misgivings about what we are learning about their abilities to negotiate a world which will require them to read.  (And for this post I will not even get into the validity question that is begged when a student can literally fail the test one day and pass the next. It happens frequently and with a wide swing of scores.)

Reading tests do not mirror an authentic reading situation.

When we read in the real world we read for a number of reasons: for pleasure, to gather information, to consider different points of view, to reach our own self-selected goals.

The first step in any authentic reading situation involves a measure of choice on the part of the reader.  Do I want to read this?  Why am I reading it?  What do I hope to get from the reading to which I am devoting my intellectual energies?

Real reading also exists in a context.  Is this reading for work? For recreation? To complete a task I very much want to complete?   Why do I need to read this?

None of these situations exist in a Reading Comprehension test.

The purpose of the reading is to pass the test.  Nothing more.

For that reason, test takers are interested in only one thing: What is the right answer?  To me, this perverts the entire process.

In helping students master the test I often find myself exhorting them: "Pretend to be interested in what you're reading. Try to find something you care about."  The key to their success lies in whether or not they can engage in the reading before answering the questions.

Most students choose the expedient method:  Read the questions (not the passage) and then go looking for the answer.  This would explain why so many students struggle with inference questions.  These questions rely on the student's understanding of the piece as a whole along with its implications.

For the struggling student, finding the motivation to read a passage that is of no interest to them is a huge hurdle.  For school-friendly students--those who have accepted the game the grownups seem to be playing--motivating themselves to read through passages that are of no particular interest is not a problem.  In many cases they have been doing this (and doing it well enough) their entire schooling lives.

The state test requires students to read forms, sometimes an application form, sometimes a flyer for an upcoming program, and so forth.  I suspect that if a student wanted a job or to attend a concert and had to read and fill out an application form to meet those goals, their comprehension would soar.  In an earlier version of the state test students had to read and answer questions about an application for volunteer services directed largely to retirees.  Really?  The average age of a typical reader of that form would be, I suspect, 60 years old.  These are sixteen year old boys and girls who have yet to start a career much less retire from one.  Who cares?

Perhaps this explains the boys in particular who have been unable to pass the state reading test while concurrently passing an EMT or Firefighter test.  Both of these civil service tests are formidable, and yet, (according to test scores) our worst students seem capable of passing them in order to gain entry into a career the young men are passionate about.

Reading Comprehension tests have never been my favorite.  Inevitably they make me feel stupid.  Especially the main idea questions where I, and frequently my students, struggle in deciding which answer is more right than another.

For one whole year in elementary school (maybe it was fourth or fifth grade) Montgomery County schools insisted on the SRA reading program.  We read (out of context) selections on cards and followed them with mini-reading comprehension tests. They sat on a shelf in colored boxes, each color showing the progression through grade-leveled readings.  (I am still amused by the methods used to shield students from their "levels."  We all knew which colors were harder just as we knew the Bluebird reading group was comprised of the top performers.)

Despite being a voracious reader at the time, I did not progress very quickly through the colored boxes because you had to hit a certain score before moving on.  I came to dread that shelf of boxes and clearly came away with the idea that "I am not a very good reader."

During the day I was forming a poor image of myself as a reader while every night I was zooming through the Little House on the Prairie series, all of Ray Bradbury, every Nancy Drew book I could find, Boxcar Children, Cherry Ames Student Nurse, all the Beverly Cleary books, historical fiction about the westward migration, and twenty-five cent comic books which introduced me to all the great works of literature in the form of Illustrated Classics.

Test taking has taken its toll in classroom use of time that could be better spent in helping students--especially struggling students--find authentic purposes for reading.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Teaching in the Wake of Violence

Though I hate to add to his growing notoriety, I cannot help but read all of the articles detailing the history of Jared Lee Loughner, the shooter at the Tucson, Arizona public meeting of representative Gabby Giffords.
I have similarly read the accounts of events leading up to other massacres like the Virginia Tech shootings and Columbine.  My interest is professional.  My questions to myself are "Would I recognize a disturbed mind in my classroom?  Would I be able to get help?"
The answer is found in the articles themselves. Often sited in the history is a teacher, or teachers, who have been disturbed enough by aberrant behavior to consult other professionals outside the classroom.  Yes. I would (and have, I think) recognize a disturbed mind in my classroom.  I admit that each violent event has increased my vigilance.
Would I be able to get help?
That is the part of the question that is unclear.
In all of the cases where I have rung the alarm - I can think of four since Columbine - the help for the students has been spotty.  It was easy enough to get a psychologist to come for an observation.  What happened next is what I cannot gauge.  I can only say, like our terrorism program where an absence of incidents is indicative of success, there have been no Columbines in my district--yet.
There have been cuts to budgets that mean fewer school-based psychologists than in the past.  The year following a recommendation which resulted in the entrance of a deeply depressed young man into the 'system,' the school-based psychologist position was cut.
I don't know what happened next.
The ability to recognize unusual behavior comes from years of seeing the vast swath of children and their typical behaviors pass through a classroom.  In the adolescent years, pinpointing behavior outside the norm can be easier for a teacher. In some respects, teenagers are aberrant by their very nature, but some are clearly more abnormal than others.
Parents, though their love for their child is beyond question, do not have this perspective on a particular age group.  Many are traversing the adolescent years for the first time as an adult.  They do not always know when acting out or listlessness is just the usual teen angst or something larger.  Against the backdrop of work with thousands of adolescents, the difference is clearer.
More and more, scanning the young people for potential mental health, drug abuse, and nutritional issues is part of the profession of teaching.  (A sad commentary on the state of our society, but that's for another day.)
The English classroom, where students may be encouraged to write about personal experiences, offers a unique window into the mind of a child.  These writings have occasionally emboldened me to tell parents "I think your child is abusing drugs"  and "Your son has an unhealthy obsession with firearms."  Not easy statements to share with a parent, but ones that are based on years of working with young women and men of a certain age.
The official viewpoint of some systems has been to ban all writing that involves violence.
This is a mistake.
Boys "act out" on paper many violent scenarios which are no indication of a diseased mind.  Thomas Newkirk and Ralph Fletcher have both studied boys and their writing lives and argued that squelching such writing out of a fear of escalating violence would cut off an opportunity for boys to work through their masculine roles and deal with the spectre of death in a manageable format. Doing so are all important activities for a healthy development.  Cutting off these opportunities means separating the boys further from adult mentors who can guide their development and address fears that boys are otherwise left to deal with alone.
Our boys' choice of genre and writing topics need to be embraced in school.  Rather than deny a boy's need to rehearse on paper their fundamental masculinity because it is not "school friendly" we should allow that expression and monitor it for unhealthy obsessions.
Believe me, to an experienced teacher, the difference is clear.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Stop the testing and our international slide

Blogging and reading blogs forms an echo-chamber.  Those who visit blogs are generally like-minded, nodding our heads as we read about things we already believe or know to be true.
The power of a blog is in disseminating information and understanding to those who do NOT read.  In other words, talk to those who disagree or who are uniformed.
So I offer this, some factual information to pass along when convincing our representatives, friends, neighbors that the current iteration of NCLB has done more harm than good and that high-stakes testing must be stopped now.
Reform needs to occur, but the current punitive, narrowly focused policy in public education has damaged our students and should be stopped by the 112th Congress.

For those who love numbers, these tell the tale clearly and succinctly.  Here is the source.

"...the NCLB approach has not raised performance on international assessments such as PISA that measure higher-order thinking skills and the ability to apply knowledge to novel problems.  Over the years during which NCLB has been in force. U.S. scores and rankings declined on international assessments.  On PISA, U.S. science rankings dropped from 13th to 21st out of 30 participating OECD nations between 2000 and 2006 (with a score drop from 500 to 489) and from 24th to 26th in math between 2003 and 2006, when trends could be evaluated (with a score from from 483 to 474). Of all areas tested, U.S. students scored lowest on problem solving. The PISA literacy test could not be properly scored in the U.S. tests in 2006 due to an editing problem, but on the international PIRLS assessments of reading, the United States dropped from 9th to 18th out of 28 jurisdictions between 2001 and 2006 (with a score drop from 542 to 540). meanwhile, annual gains on the U.S. National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) slowed considerable after the implementation of NCLB, crawling nearly to a halt in 8th-grade reading...." (The Flat World and Education by Linda Darling Hammond, p 283)