The fiction selected for standardized testing is notorious for its singular ability not to challenge; these stories do not challenge political or religious beliefs, and I have long suspected they are selected because they do not challenge academically.
My state of Connecticut has had great success locating and incorporating some of the blandest stories ever written for teens to use in the “Response to Literature” section of the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT).
The CAPT was first administered to students in grade 10 in the spring of 1994, and the quality of the “literature” has less than challenging. For example:
- Amanda and the Wounded Birds: A radio psychologist is too busy to notice the needs of her teen-age daughter;
- A Hundred Bucks of Happy: An unclearly defined narrator finds a $100 bill and decides to share the money with his/her family (but not his/her dad);
- Catch the Moon: A young man walks a fine line between delinquency and a beautiful young woman (to be fair, there was a metaphor in this story)
At least three of the stories have included dogs:
- Liberty-a dog cannot immigrate to the USA with his family;
- Viva New Jersey-a lost dog makes a young immigrant feel better;
- The Dog formally known as Victor Maximilian Bonaparte Lincoln Rothbaum- not exactly an immigrant story, but a dog emigrates from family to family in custody battle.
We are always on the lookout for a CAPT-like story of the requisite forgettable quality for practice when we came upon the story, A View from a Bridge
by Cherokee Paul McDonald. The story was short, with average vocabulary, average character development, and average plot complexity. I was reminded about this one particular story last week when Sean, a former student, stopped by the school for a visit during his winter break from college.
The short story “A View from the Bridge” was used as a practice CAPT test prompt
Sean was a bright student who through his own choice remained seriously under challenged in class. For each assignment. Sean met the minimum requirement: minimum words required, minimum reading level in independent book, minimum time spent on project. I knew that Sean was more capable, but he was not going to give me the satisfaction of finding out, that is until A View from the Bridge.
The story featured a runner out for his jog who stopped on a bridge to take a break near a young boy who was fishing, his tackle nearby. After a brief conversation, the jogger realizes that the young boy was blind. The story concludes with the jogger describing a fish the blind boy had caught but could not see. At the story’s conclusion, the boy is delighted, and the jogger reaffirmed that he should help his fellow man/boy.
“The story A View from the Bridge by McDonald is the most stupid story I have ever read,” wrote Sean in essay #1 in his Initial Response to Literature.
“I mean, who lets a blind boy fish by himself on a bridge? He could fall off into the water!”
I stopped reading. How had I not thought about this?
Sean continued, “Also, fishhooks are dangerous. A blind kid could put a fishhook right into a finger. How would he get that out? A trip to the emergency room, that’s how, and emergency rooms are expensive. I know, because I had to go for stitches and the bill was over $900.00.”
Wow! Sean was “Making a Connection”, and well over his minimum word count. I was very impressed, but I had a standardized rubric to follow. Sean was not addressing the details in the story. His conclusion was strong:
“I think that kid’s mother should be locked up!”
I was in a quandary. How could I grade his response against the standardized rubric? Furthermore, he was right. The story was ridiculous, but how many other students had seen that? How many had addressed this critical flaw in the plot ? Only Sean was demonstrating critical thinking, the other students were all writing like the trained seals we had created .
One theory of grading suggests that teachers should reward students for what they do well, regardless of a rubric.So Sean received a passing grade on this essay assignment. There were other students who scored higher because they met the criteria, but I remember thinking how Sean’s response communicated a powerful reaction to a story beyond the demands of the standardized test. In doing so, he reminded me of the adage, “There are none so blind as those who cannot see.”