Archives For Reader Response in CAPT

capt As the 10th grade English teacher, Linda’s role had been to prepare students for the rigors of the State of Connecticut Academic Performance Test, otherwise known as the CAPT. She had been preparing students with exam-released materials, and her collection of writing prompts stretched back to 1994.  Now that she will be retiring, it is time to clean out the classroom. English teachers are not necessarily hoarders, but there was evidence to suggest that Linda was stocked with enough class sets of short stories to ensure  students were always more than adequately prepared. Yet, she was delighted to see these particular stories go.
“Let’s de-CAPT-itate,” we laughed and piled up the cartons containing well-worn copies of short stories.
Out went Rough Touch. Out went Machine Runner. Out went Farewell to Violet, and a View from the Bridge.
I chuckled at the contents of the box labelled”depressing stories” before chucking them onto the pile.
Goodbye to Amanda and the Wounded Birds. Farewell to A Hundred Bucks of Happy. Adios to Catch the Moon. We pulled down another carton labeled  “dog stories” containing LibertyViva New JerseyThe Dog Formally Known as Victor Maximilian Bonaparte Lincoln Rothbaum. They too were discarded without a tear.
The CAPT’s Response to Literature’s chief flaw was the ludicrous diluting of Louise Rosenblatt’s Reader Response Theory where students were asked to “make a connection:”

What does the 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 other books you have read, or movies, works of art, or television programs you have seen.

That question was difficult for many of the literal readers, who, in responding to the most obvious plot point, might answer, “This story has a dog and I have a dog.” How else to explain all the dog stories? On other occasions, I found out that while taking standardized test in the elementary grades students had been told, “if you have no connection to the story, make one up!” Over the years, the CAPT turned our students into very creative liars rather than literary analysts.

 

The other flaw in the Response to Literature  was the evaluation question. Students were asked,  

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

Many of our students found this a difficult question to negotiate, particularly if they thought the author did not write a good piece of literature, but rather an average or mildly enjoyable story. They did manage to make their opinions known, and  one of my favorite student responses began, “While this story is no  Macbeth, there are a few nice metaphors…”

Most of the literature on the CAPT did come from reputable writers, but they were not the quality stories found in anthologies like Saki’s The Interlopers or Anton Chekhov’s The Bet. To be honest, I did not think the CAPT essays were an authentic activity, and I particularly did not like the selections on the CAPT’s Response to Literature section.

Now the CAPT will be replaced by the Smarter Balanced Assessments (SBAC), as Connecticut has selected SBAC as their assessment consortium to measure progress with the Common Core State Standards, and the test will move to 11th grade. This year (2014) is the pilot test only; there are no exemplars and no results.  The SBAC is digital, and in the future we will practice taking this test on our devices, so there is no need to hang onto class sets of short stories. So why am I concerned that there will be no real difference with the SBAC? Cleaning the classroom may be a transition that is more symbolic of our move from paper to keyboard than in our gaining an authentic assessment.

Nevertheless, Linda’s classroom looked several tons lighter.

“We are finally de-CAPT-itated!” I announced looking at the stack of boxes ready for the dumpster.

“Just in time to be SBAC-kled!” Linda responded cheerfully.

NEWLY EDITED 12/29/12:
I hate Reader Response Theory, one that considers readers’ reactions to literature as vital to interpreting the meaning of the text.

CHANGED TO:
I hate how Reader Response Theory has been abused by standardized testing. Two most annoying questions for me in the Connecticut standardized testing for reading (CAPT-Response to Literature) are reader response based questions to a short story prompt:

  • CAPT #1:What are your thoughts and questions about the story? You might reflect upon the characters, their problems, the title, or other ideas in the story.
  • CAPT #4: How successful was the author in creating a good piece of literature?  Use examples from the story to explain your thinking.

After 10 years of teaching with this standardized test, I can recognize how many of my students struggle with these questions. Many lack the critical training gained from extensive reading experiences in order  to judge the quality of a text. Combine this lack of reader experience with the see-saw quality of the text on the exam year to year.  Since classic short stories such as those 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, more contemporary selections have been used on the exam. For example, these stories in the past years have included Amanda and the Wounded Birds by Colby Rodowsky, Catch the Moon by Judith Ortiz Cofer, and a story written by Jourdan U Playing for Berlinsky published in Teen Ink. While some stories are well-written, many lack the complexity and depth that would generate thoughtful responses to a prompt that asks about “good literature.”  My students are in the uncomfortable position of defending an average quality story as good; the prompt promotes intellectual dishonesty.

So, I use a formula. I teach my students how to answer the first question by having them list their intellectual (What did you think?) and emotional (What did you feel?) reactions to the story. I have them respond by listing any predictions or questions they have about the text, and I have them summarize the plot in two short sentences. The formula is necessary because the students have only 10-15 minutes to answer this in a full page handwritten before moving to another question. The emphasis is one that is reader’s response; what does the reader think of the story rather than what did the author mean?

I teach how to answer the evaluation question much in the same way. Students measure the story against a pre-prepared set of three criteria; they judge a story’s plot, character(s) and language in order to evaluate what they determine is the quality of the story. Again, this set of criteria is developed by the student according to reader response theory, and again there is little consideration to author intent.

The newly adopted Common Core State Standards (CCSS) in Language Arts is designed differently. The  focus is back on the text; what the reader thinks is out of favor. For example, in three of the ten standards, 10th grade students are required to:

  • Analyze how complex characters (e.g., those with multiple or conflicting motivations) develop over the course of a text, interact with other characters, and advance the plot or develop the theme;
  • Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text;
  • Cite strong and thorough textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.

Please note, there is nothing in the language of the standards that asks what the student thinks or feels about the text.

In an article titled, “How Will Reading Instruction Change When Aligned to the Common Core?” on The Thomas B. Fordham Institute website (1/27/2012), Kathleen Porter-Magee  discusses the shift from the student centered response to the CCSS  “challenges to help students (and teachers) understand that reading is not about them.”

Porter-Magee  describes how David Coleman, one of the architects of the CCSS ELA standards, is promoting the close reading of texts, sometimes over extended periods of several days. The article notes that currently, “teachers often shift students’ attention away from the text too quickly by asking them what they think of what they’re reading, or how it makes them feel. Or by asking them to make personal connections to the story.” Coleman states that, “Common Core challenges us to help students (and teachers) understand that reading is not about them.” Instead, he advocates the practice of close reading, a practice that  “challenges our overemphasis on personal narrative and personal opinion in writing classrooms.”

In addition to the movement away from reader response criticism, the CCSS will be upgrading the complexity of the texts. Porter-Magee notes that,

“Of course, there’s only value in lingering on texts for so long if they’re worthy of the time—and that is why the Common Core asks students to read texts that are sufficiently complex and grade-appropriate. Yes, such texts may often push students—perhaps even to their frustration level. That is why it’s essential for teachers to craft the kinds of text-dependent questions that will help them break down the text, that will draw their attention to some of the most critical elements, and that will push them to understand (and later analyze) the author’s words.”

In other words, the quality of the texts will be substantively different than the texts used in the past on the Response to Literature section of the CAPT. This should make the response about the quality of text more authentic; a genuine complex text can be analyzed as “good literature.” How the more complex text will be used in testing, however, remains to be seen. A student trained in close reading will require more time with a complex text in generating a response.

I confess, the movement away from reader response is a move I applaud. A student’s response to a complex text is not as important in for the CCSS as what the text says or what the author intended, evidence will supplant opinion.

However, I am very aware that the momentum of the every swing of the educational pendulum brings an equal and opposite reaction. Swish! Out with reader response. Swoop! In with close reading of complex texts. Students,this swing is not about you.