Inside Education’s Must-Pass Test

“If my future were determined just by my performance on a standardized test, I wouldn’t be here. I guarantee you that.” – Michelle Obama

It’s never quite what you think.

I have been teaching writing, one way or another, for more than 25 years. I’ve taught professional writers, I’ve taught middle school English, high school English and I currently teach several sections of college composition. Through it all, I have seem many things, but nothing as absurd as the process by which the State of Texas goes about administering and grading the STAAR writing test.

It’s called different things in different states, the FCAT in Florida, for example, but the concept is the same. At the end of 4th and 7th grade, students are given a writing prompt, and how they do on that test can have a significant impact on their educational futures. From the outside, you would think (as I did before teaching 7th grade) that teachers would simply spend class time each day working on basic writing skills so that by the end of the year their students would be amply prepared for the test. Students would take the test, it would be sent off to – oh, I don’t know …. college professors? – and be graded. Students would be scored on a consistent scale based on how well they responded to the prompt.

“Amazing. Every word you just said was wrong.” – Luke Skywalker

I was fairly blown away when it was finally explained to me – after I pestered the director of the English department in the school district where I taught 7th grade English. STAAR writing tests are shipped off to a small city in Central Texas, where pretty much anyone who answers a Craig’s List ad will sit in a big warehouse and grade the writing tests. Each grader is given a template to help them decide what grade to give each test on a scale from 1-5, with five being the top.

Huh? Well, that did explain a lot!

All year the district hammered us about teaching kids to write to a particular template, all the while preaching “college readiness” over and over until we heard those words in our sleep. It wasn’t particularly useful, as I pointed out more than a few times that as a freshman English professor I would not even accept the paper format we were forced to teach kids to write, not that it mattered all that much because the vast majority of my students couldn’t write at all anyway.

That’s right – kids had gotten all the way to seventh grade without being able to respond to a basic writing prompt. The biggest issue, I figured out, was that the largely economically-challenged student body had zero experiences to draw upon as they attempted to relate to myriad writing prompts.

As it happened, they hired a guy with extensive experience in English, including a MA and Master’s Degree in literature and more than two decades of experience turning passionate NBA fans into outstanding professional journalists. After Christmas break I came in with a plan to give my students some experiences to draw from, starting with a study of the novel Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, one of the greatest science-fiction novels ever written. It wasn’t in the approved curriculum, so I had to clear it with the principal, but it turned out he was a huge fan of the book and he immediately approved my plan.

The district wasn’t happy. I had taken time away from the mandated (and pointless) writing drills to actually help my students have a foundation from which to draw as they approached writing. It worked brilliantly, too!

All of a sudden, kids who sat with their heads down when they were asked to write were busy scribbling away, excited to relate the current prompt to the Buggers wars, the rise of Ender Wiggin, the crisis he faced at the end of the novel and whether or not he was redeemed at the end. The school librarian even came down and told me the most requested book at the school was the second book in the Ender series.

Imagine! Kids were not only writing for the first time, but they were also excited about reading!

Naturally, the district muckety mucks didn’t like any of this, and I resolved not to teach 7th grade English after they literally took over our lesson planning and made us follow a script for the rest of the year. I told our assistant principal that what they were making us do would not work, and while he agreed he was powerless to do anything about it. I delivered the mandated instruction (we were monitored almost daily to assure that we did) and I resigned at the end of the year.

The AP called me during the summer and told me the entire 7th grade had crashed and burned on the STAAR writing test, as they had for half a dozen years running, and it was for the reasons I had spelled out. I told him that was anything but surprising, as the district-level people responsible for the previous six years of failures were still running the show.

Through the process I learned that after those wonderful Craig’s List folks finished grading, the Texas Education Agency would set the passing score based on what percentage of students they wanted to have pass the test.

Go ahead and read that sentence again, just to let it sink in.

That’s right, TEA would determine what a passing grade was based upon their own arbitrary numbers, which is the opposite of what education should entail. To be fair, you must set a passing standard and then see how many students live up to that standard. Instead TEA had and has their finger on the scale.

What impact is this having on student performance? What I can tell you is that the college where I teach freshman composition is having to double down on remedial English courses because an overwhelming number of incoming freshman, many from the same community where I once taught seventh grade English, simply have zero ability to write.

Presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has a plan to provide free education for all, and while I admire the spirit behind this plan, I have one reservation. If we are going to provide free college, we ABSOLUTELY MUST change the way we are holding students accountable for their performance in the K-12 system. Failure must cease to be a bad word and become the valuable teaching tool that it once was. We must take the time and energy required to assess our students’ needs, be honest about where they are, and stop pushing kids on when they haven’t mastered the basics of their current grade level.

In other words, we need to apply some common sense to a system that has long since turned away from any notion of such.


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