Archives For CT State Testing-Response to Literature

Screen Shot 2013-03-10 at 11.08.07 AMMarch in Connecticut brings two unpleasant realities: high winds and the state standardized tests. Specifically, the Connecticut Academic Performance Tests (CAPT) given to Grade 10th are in the subjects of math, social studies, sciences and English.

There are two tests in the English section of the CAPT to demonstrate student proficiency in reading. In one, students are given a published story of 2,000-3,000 words in length at a 10th-grade reading level. They have 70 minutes to read the story and draft four essay responses.

What is being tested is the student’s ability to comprehend, analyze, synthesize, and evaluate. While these goals are properly aligned to Bloom’s taxonomy, the entire enterprise smacks of intellectual dishonesty when “Response to Literature” is the title of this section of the test.

Literature is defined online as:

“imaginative or creative writing, especially of recognized artistic value: or writings in prose or verse; especially writings having excellence of form or expression and expressing ideas of permanent or universal interest.”

What the students read on the test is not literature. What they read is a story.

A story is defined as:

“an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment.”

While the distinction may seem small at first, the students have a very difficult time responding to the last of the four questions asked in the test:

How successful was the author in creating a good piece of literature? Use examples from the story to explain your thinking.

The problem is that the students want to be honest.

When we practice writing responses to this question, we use the released test materials from previous years: “Amanda and the Wounded Birds”, “A Hundred Bucks of Happy”, “Machine Runner” or “Playing for Berlinsky”.  When the students write their responses, they are able to write they understood the story and that they can make a connection. However, many students complain the story they just read is not “good” literature.

I should be proud that the students recognize the difference. In Grades 9 & 10, they are fed a steady diet of great literature: The Odyssey, Of Mice and Men, Romeo and Juliet, All Quiet on the Western Front, Animal Farm, Oliver Twist. The students develop an understanding of characterization. They are able to tease out complex themes and identify “author’s craft”. We read the short stories “The Interlopers” by Saki, “The Sniper” by Liam O´Flaherty, or “All of Summer in a Day” by Ray Bradbury. We practice the CAPT good literature question with these works of literature. The students generally score well.

But when the students are asked to do the same for a CAPT story like the 2011 story “The Dog Formerly Known as Victor Maximilian Bonaparte Lincoln Rothbaum”, they are uncomfortable trying to find the same rich elements that make literature good. A few students will be brave enough to take on the question with statements such as:

  • “Because these characters are nothing like Lenny and George in Of Mice and Men…”
  • “I am unable to find one iota of author’s craft, but I did find a metaphor.”
  • “I am intelligent enough to know that this is not ‘literature’…”

I generally caution my students not to write against the prompt. All the CAPT released exemplars are ripe with praise for each story offered year after year. But I also recognize that calling the stories offered on the CAPT “literature” promotes intellectual dishonesty.

Perhaps the distinction between literature and story is not the biggest problem that students encounter when they take a CAPT Response to Literature. For at least one more year students will handwrite all responses under timed conditions: read a short story (30 minutes) and answer four questions (40 minutes). Digital platforms will be introduced in 2014, and that may help students who are becoming more proficient with keyboards than pencils.
But even digital platforms will not halt the other significant issue with one other question, the “Connection question (#3)” on the CAPT Response to Literature:

 What does this story say about people in general? In what ways does it remind you of people you have known or experiences you have had?  You may also write about stories or books you have read or movies, works of art, or television programs you have seen.  Use examples from the story to explain your thinking.

Inevitably, a large percentage of students write about personal experiences when they make a connection to the text. They write about “friends who have had the same problem” or “a relative who is just like” or “neighbors who also had trouble”.  When I read these in practice session, I sometimes comment to the student, “I am sorry to hear about____”.

However, the most frequent reply I get is often startling.

“No, that’s okay. I just made that up for the test.”

At least they know that their story, “an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment,” is not literature, either.

 The marathon of testing  is over! In the State of Connecticut, the two week window for the Connecticut Mastery Tests (CMT -elementary) and the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT grade 10) has ended, and some teachers are looking at the two week “hole” in grade books and unit plans that the intensive state testing created.

While education experts strongly advocate against “teaching to the test” and advocate the development of skills, most classroom teachers feel some obligation to prepare students for the tests by simulating at least one timed practice session for a specific test. Our state releases past testing materials for each discipline, and to be honest, our students do a fair amount of practice with these released materials before the test.

For the past two weeks, the daily school schedules have been modified to accomodate early morning testing sessions. During the school day, the lessons for students who have spent a grueling 45-90 minutes calculating or writing have been modified as well. For example, when they finally have  attended English classes, our tenth grade students have been provided silent sustained reading time for books they have independently chosen or have been watching videos to supplement a world literature unit on people in conflict.

The reading or Response to Literature test, associated with English classes,  requires students to read a short story and then write four lengthy  responses. Sadly, year after year, the quality of the story on this test pales in comparison to the classic short stories a student will encounter in even the most limited literature anthology. So we prepare students how to respond to  a question that asks “Is this good literature?” with even the most mediocre story.  Now that that the test is over,  students will begin the epic poem Beowulf, and the teachers are looking forward to having the students engage with this 8th Century grandfather of literature. We are ready for some “epic-hero-wrenching-monster’s-arm” action.

The writing or Writing Across the Disciplines test, associated with social studies, requires students to read newspaper articles about a controversial  topic, take a position on the controversial topic, and then develop a persuasive argument. There is absolutely no content from the social studies curriculum, in this case Modern World History, associated with the test. Now that this test is over, teachers can return to history content outlined in their curriculums; back to the arrival of the American forces on the shores on Iwo Jima and in the forests of the Ardennes.

Pencil and scantron testing is not an authentic practice in the world outside the classroom, but I am not against testing as a means to determine student progress; I accept that some form of testing is inevitable in education. However, the past two weeks of reading instructions (“Does everyone have two #2 pencils?”), writing in booklets (“Stop. Do not turn page”),  and racing against the clock (“You have 10 minutes left”) has taken a toll on students and faculty alike. Everyone is looking forward to the routine of a regular schedule.

Wearily, our students climbed the stairs for the last time this morning after taking the final  “supplemental” test, an extra assessment given to test materials for future test-takers. The students’ time in the testing crucible had passed; their scores will be posted during the the lazy days of summer when this experience will be nothing but a memory. Hopefully, they will have done well, and we will be pleased with the results.

Post-CAPT, there are several weeks left in the third quarter, and one full quarter after that.  Teachers can return to content without incorporating CAPT preparation with clear consciences. Our tenth graders will have the chance to read Macbeth where they will have the opportunity to create and respond to more significant questions than “Is this good literature?”  The importance of this great play placed against the activities of the past two weeks puts me in the mind  to parody Shakespeare’s famous speech-

Out, out, two weeks of testing
The CAPT is but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a test,
mandated by others, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.