Semester 2, Week 2: Test Language

This was a blessedly short week. We got in and got out! Tuesday we had a teacher work day without kids. I spent the day with the other ELD teacher, looking at how we can make teaching the necessary standards (read teaching to the test) fit into the time and patience available to us.

As we went through the test, I realized, not for the first time, that the language of the questions is pretty complex for the students in my room. For example, one asks something like, “Which of the below is a factor in Pa’s eagerness to move to the prairie?” The question refers to a full page passage they had to read from a Laura Ingalls Wilder story. First of all, such a long passage for four questions? My students, who although nearly fluent are not quite there yet waver at the sight of an entire page of text, especially when they can see that it is followed by nine more. So assuming that they’ve read the page, they are not certain at all what a factor is. The question would still require them to read the page if it asked for a reason rather than a factor, but at least they would know what they were looking for. “Eagerness?” Couldn’t they just have said, “Why did Pa want to move to the prairie?” Is the question testing reading comprehension or word choice? Do we teach a long list of unrelated words which are completely out of context that we mine from the test, or do we teach skills like finding the big ideas in a text? I know they go together, and I do mine the test for all those unrelated words, but is that the best way to spend our time?

I’m of two minds on this. I can hear you say, “Well, when are they going to learn those words? You have to teach them sometime.” I get that, really I do. But I also, when I think back on words I’ve learned, know that if they are part of a conversation or an interesting bit of reading I will remember then because I can attach them to something else. A lone word floating around (Cosmology is one that comes to mind. It was on the last test and I taught the heck out of that one. 86% of them got it right.) can be taught, but won’t be very meaningful.

I’m roaming. Obviously I have mixed feelings. I can teach to the benchmark tests but not to the CST as I can’t see that one. I can “teach the standards” but if they don’t understand the language of the test questions will they still bomb the test? Leading people to say “What’s wrong with the seventh graders?” With the subtext, “What’s wrong with their teacher?”

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