Community Columns

If we must test students, we should do it at their grade level

I am a language arts teacher in Modesto. At this time, my school is not under state mandate to improve based on last year's test scores, but our district has implemented many programs and policies aimed at raising student test scores.

We have adopted the Holt textbook program to address the language arts standards; we have selected "essential standards" to focus on each quarter; we have developed pacing calendars and course outlines, along with quarterly benchmark exams to assess students' progress toward mastery of the standards.

We give an additional hour of language arts, daily, to students who need special remediation; we offer "prep" classes before and after school to students who still score at basic level on the benchmark exams, and so on and so on.

It often feels that the entire focus of my year is on the STAR tests. I spend countless hours preparing my students for their year-end assessments. I take my job seriously and follow the course outline as diligently as I can. And then, when the test is finally administered, my students are faced with reading passages that are far beyond what they should be expected to read and understand, such as ones from Sherwood Anderson's "Winesburg, Ohio," which I read in college and was published in 1919! Not only is it extremely difficult reading for eighth-graders, it is outdated writing which is of little interest to them. (To read an excerpt of "Winesburg, Ohio" online, go to www.bartleby.net/156/25.html.)

I beg you to give our students a fair chance to show you what they have learned. They know about plot, irony, figurative language, characterization, narrator, etc., but if they can't read the selection to begin with, how can they prove it?

Whatever happened to authors like Gary Soto, Sandra Cisneros, Maya Angelou and others who are more contemporary? Why must students struggle through excerpts about boating on a yacht or leaving a small town to go off to college in 1919?

Obviously, nobody in Sacramento is actually creating the CST for reading, but you are buying it from a company that is making lots of money trying to convince you that their test assesses our state language arts standards.

Nobody in Sacramento, however, seems to be concerned with the fact that many (I daresay most) of the students can't read the selections because these selections simply are not at the appropriate grade level.

I ask you again: Why should an eighth-grader have to read a high-school- or college-level short story in order to prove to you that they have mastered an eighth-grade standard?

I am not complaining about the need for standards or the current emphasis on testing. I realize that state compliance is mandatory in order to receive federal funding, and I am long past the point of attempting to argue or change it. I believe that students and teachers should be held accountable for the curriculum. However, I feel that this CST reading test, in the current format, sets us up for frustration and failure. We work so hard to prepare our students to succeed, and then they are simply not given a fair opportunity to show how much they have learned.

I know that you share my desire to see test scores improve statewide and to provide students with a fair chance to demonstrate what they have learned.

Notice I used the word "fair" and not "easy." I'm not asking for an easy test. I'm asking for a test with reading passages that are at the appropriate grade and interest level for our students. I'm asking, simply, for the state of California to purchase a test that gives students a fair, fighting chance.

Haskett is chairwoman of the language arts department at Roosevelt Junior High in Modesto and has worked in education for more than 25 years. Her remarks are aimed primarily at the state officials responsible for California's testing programs.

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