Archives For state standardized tests

ScantronThe New York State Department of Education’s new standardized tests were administered last week. The tests for grades 3-8 were developed by the educational testing company Pearson and contained new “authentic” passages aligned to the new Common Core State Standards. State tests might have been routine news had not several teachers also noticed that the English Language Arts “authentic” passages mentioned products and trademark names including Mug ©Root Beer and Lego ©.

Product placement on standardized tests in elementary schools is bigger news. The public has grown accustomed to advertisements on webpages, before videos, on scoreboards, and with the well-placed beverage during a movie. Subtle and direct advertising to the youth market to develop brand loyalty at an early age is the goal of almost every corporation.

Consider a survey by Piper Jaffray, a leading investment bank and asset management firm, the  “Taking Stock With Teens” survey (taken March 1–April 3, 2013), that gathered input from approximately 5,200 teens (average age of 16.3 years). The survey is used to determine trends, and the most recent results note:

“Spending has moderated across discretionary categories for both upper-income and average-income teens when compared to the prior year and prior season. Yet nearly two-thirds of respondents view the economy as consistent to improving, and just over half signaled an intent to spend ‘more’ on key categories of interest, particularly fashion and status brand merchandise.”

Much attention, therefore, is placed on the youth market, and product placement on standardized testing could be a new marketing strategy. For example, corporations in the fashion industry could read this report and be inclined to offer some news stories or commission a short story that mentioned clothing brand names in the future to Pearson or another testing company in order to provide “authentic” passages. What better opportunity for corporations to build brand loyalty then to an audience, captive in a classroom during a state-mandated test?

The education reporter for the Washington Post, Valerie Strauss, reported on the “authentic” passages that mentioned products as “author’s choices”; Pearson’s response to her query:

As part of our partnership with NYSED, Pearson searches for previously published passages that will support grade-level appropriate items for use in the 3-8 ELA assessments. The passages must meet certain criteria agreed upon by both NYSED and Pearson in order to best align to Common Core State Standards and be robust enough to support the development of items. Once passages are approved, Pearson follows legal protocols to procure the rights to use the published passages on the assessment on behalf of NYSED. If a fee is required to obtain permission, Pearson pays this fee. NYSED has ultimate approval of passages used on the assessment.

Strauss’s report, “New Standardized Tests Feature Plugs for Commercial Products” also indicated that this practice is not exclusive to NY, and that “several different assessment programs have instances of brand names included due to use of authentic texts.” There were no specifics mentioned.

Following up with the NY Department of Education, Beth Fertig from the blog Schoolbook (WNYC),  Stories from the Front Line of Testing asked about the recent product placement:

“This is the first time we have had 100 percent authentic texts on the assessments,” said spokesman Tom Dunn. “They were selected as appropriate to measure the ELA standards. Any brand names that occurred in them were incidental and were cited according to publishing conventions. No one was paid for product placements.”

Perhaps no one was paid this year, but an unwritten taboo was broken with these standardized test. The New York Post reported one teacher response in the article  “Learn ABC’s – & IBM’s: Products in Kid Exams” by Yoav Gonen and Georgett Roberts

“I’ve been giving this test for eight years and have never seen the test drop trademarked names in passages — let alone note the trademark at the bottom of the page,” said one teacher who administered the exam.

They also reported that other commercial enterprises including the TV show “Teen Titans” and the international soccer brand FIFA  were also included on the tests.

While gaining the loyalty of the youth market is a necessary step for major corporations, the appearance of these brands on standardized tests brings our students one step closer to the future as envisioned by Stephen Spielberg in the film Minority Report. In one scene, the fugitive John Anderton (Tom Cruise) walks along a corridor while animated billboards market directly to him by calling his name:

The possibility of this kind of marketing exists and perhaps personalized advertising will call to us everyday; a cacophony of advertisements designed to keep brand names in our consciousness. Similarly, even the youngest students are the target of marketing campaigns as part of any corporation’s long term economic strategy; advertisements on multiple platforms are the “white noise” of their lives. So frequent are advertisements in students’ lives that any product placement, paid or unpaid, on these standardized tests may contribute to the definition of what is “authentic”. Students are exposed to ads so frequently and in so many genres that a text is not real without some brand name mentioned.

And if that product placement is a small part of what makes a passage “authentic” on a standardized test, can talking “authentic” billboards in the school hallways be far behind?

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.