Archives For CAPT Response to Literature

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

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.”

GOAL -School districts want to report their students to read great literature.
GOAL-School districts want to report good reading test scores.

Unfortunately, these two goals are currently incompatible; great literature’s complexity can be challenging to read, and schools can ill afford to have students get low test scores on reading because of great literature’s complexity.

Concerns about the removal of great literature from classrooms have been raised before, but NY public school English teacher Claire Needall Hollander passionately argues how intellectually damaging this practice has become in state testing. Her  op-ed piece in 4/21/12  NYTimes Teach the Books, Touch the Heart decries the elimination of great literature in the classroom in order to incorporate practice materials to prepare students to take the standardized tests. Hollander described her role as a reading enrichment teacher as an opportunity to provide great literature as academic equity for her students. She described several of her students as  the sons and daughters of immigrants or incarcerated parents; she noted some students lived in crowded, violent, or abusive homes. Great literature, she believed, was “cultural capital” that could help her students compete against more affluent peers. However, when the lackluster data from standardized reading tests came in, she felt pressured to abandon great literature and curtailed her efforts for the majority of these students in order to teach materials prescribed for the state test.  While the reading selections on the state tests did have some syntactical complexity, she eventually decided that these reading materials lacked the literary qualities that make literature great. Texts that are “symbolic, allusive or ambiguous are more or less absent from testing materials.” Hollander writes, “It is ironic, then, that English Language exams are designed for ‘cultural neutrality.'”

In one sense, great literature is already culturally neutral. The themes or characters in a great piece of literature are not limited to one decade or one millennium. The elements that make a work of literature great can transcend culture and context, can speak to a universal audience, can be read by any tradition and still connect to a reader. Ms. Hollander’s concerns about cultural neutrality are akin to concerns about cultural acceptability. Creators of standardized tests are particularly sensitive in selecting texts that are cultural acceptable because great literature  intentionally confronts morality, questions society’s rules, or challenges tradition. Great literature gives voice to the outsider, and authors of great literature are often on the margins of society or write to unsettle the status quo. For these reasons, selections from great literature may not be considered culturally acceptable.

I have some experience on what goes onto a standardized state test as I had a seat one year as a member of the text selection committee for the reading and writing sections of the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT)  given to grade 10 students. Much time was spent reviewing materials for inclusion on a future Response to Literature exam. Out of a number of mediocre short stories, the only selection given to educators that could meet some standards of great literature was a chapter from Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, a young adult novel that is usually read in Grade 5.  That selection was eliminated not only because of the low reading level (5.1; Lexile 670) but because the manner in which Lowry portrayed the terrifying rounding up of Jews. One committee member actually wondered aloud if Lowry could be persuaded to “reword the chapter” to address the concern. Fortunately, that debate ended with the decision that the chapter was not “acceptable” for the committee.

One problem in great literature is difficult vocabulary; for example, the simple conversations between the Man and the Boy in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road (RL 4) are interspersed with diction describing the apocalyptic setting:  “rachitic “, “miasma”, “escarpment”, “crozzled”.  Another problem is vocabulary  considered vulgar or profane that has eliminated a number of literary pieces from standardized testing and even from school libraries. According to the American Library Association (ALA) website which  lists challenges to classic literature that Hollander might teach: To Kill a Mockingbird- “contains  racial slurs”;  Of Mice and Men – “takes God’s name in vain 15 times and uses Jesus’s name lightly.” Finally,  great literature almost always contains themes that can be considered dangerous  or offensive to someone in society:  The Color Purple is “sexually graphic and violent”;  1984 is “pro-communist”; and Catcher in the Rye– is infamously “blasphemous and undermines morality.”

Engineering English language tests in order to make them culturally neutral or culturally acceptable encourages intellectual dishonesty. Take the reading section on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT)  where every 10th grader is required to read a short story and evaluate the quality of the story, “How successful was the author in creating a good piece of literature?” in a one page essay. I have spent over 10 years preparing students for this  question on the Response to Literature standardized test, and I know how students struggle with this question. Many students do not read challenging texts outside of the classroom, limiting their experience to develop critical evaluation skills. However, the more distressing problem is that year after year, the quality of the story on the CAPT pales in comparison to the classic short stories a student could encounter in even the most limited literature anthology. Classic short stories available in the public domain by Saki, Anton Chekhov, Kate Chopin, Stephen Crane, and Jack London, to name a few, are considered too difficult for independent reading by 3rd quarter 10th grade students. Copy-write requirements or an author’s unwillingness to truncate a story to comply with a maximum word requirement or to make textual changes to make the subject palatable to a text selection committee, prevents other literary materials from being used.   As a result, more recent selections have come from Teen Ink (stories written by teens) and Boy’s Life magazine, both publications not known for superior literary content. While some stories may meet a sentence complexity standard and have been vetted for acceptable content, most lack the literary depth that should generate thoughtful critical responses to a prompt that asks about “good literature.”

To further complicate the choice a student makes in a response, released materials from previous exams used to prepare students how to respond to “How successful was the author in creating a good piece of literature?” include student responses, and all of the exemplars, good and bad, argue that the story was “good”.  The  lack of reader experience coupled with the year to year see-saw quality of the text on the exam places  students in the uncomfortable position of defending a merely average quality story as good literature; therefore, the prompt promotes intellectual dishonesty.

Perhaps the problem of including good literature on a standardized test may be addressed with the adoption of the English Language Arts Common Core State Standards where text complexity is standard #10: “By the end of grade 9, read and comprehend literature, including stories, dramas, and poems, in the grades 9–10 text complexity band proficiently, with scaffolding as needed at the high end of the range.”

In other words, the use of good literature on a CCSS English Language Arts exam might be substantively different than the texts used on the Response to Literature section of the CAPT. This could make the response about the quality of text more authentic since a complex literary text can be analyzed as “good literature.” How this more complex literary text will be used in testing, however, remains to be seen since history demonstrates that cultural opposition to a story will often trump quality.

Comprehending and evaluating a text are desirable skills, and measuring those skills will still be difficult.  Multiple choice questions are quickly corrected, but they are limited to measuring reading comprehension, and a student essay response to a complex text will require considerably more time to write and correct. Anticipating this, Hollander calls for an assessment that is more reflective of student learning:

 “Instead, we should move toward extensive written exams, in which students could grapple with literary passages and books they have read in class, along with assessments of students’ reports and projects from throughout the year. This kind of system would be less objective and probably more time-consuming for administrators, but it would also free teachers from endless test preparation and let students focus on real learning.”

The CCSS should consider Hollander’s proposal as states develop assessments.  All stakeholders should also recognize that using anything less then quality literature to measure a student reading comprehension and evaluation skill on an English/Language Arts exam is intellectually dishonest.