By Julie Rine, Minerva Local Education Association
During the holiday break, I went to the website of the Ohio Department of Education (ODE) to see if more sample test items for the AIR assessment were available. Unfortunately, nothing new had been posted since the initial release a few months ago. For high school English Language Arts (ELA), there are still only seven questions based on two nonfiction readings, and one writing prompt based on three related nonfiction pieces.
Releasing only a very small handful of questions is unfair to both students and teachers. How can we be expected to adequately prepare kids when we have so little idea of what they will face? Why wouldn’t the state want to release as many sample and practice items as possible to help teachers better prepare our students to be successful on the tests?
Even though we’re not given much to work with, we can analyze what we have. The seven reading questions ask students about the purpose and main idea of each piece, and require them to compare various aspects of the pieces. The single high school AIR writing task that’s posted requires students to read three pieces which show different viewpoints of the same topic, and then use evidence from the pieces to take a position.
I don’t have a problem with any of that. I think it is important for my students to be able to discern the key points of a nonfiction piece and even more important for them to be able to read two opposing viewpoints and take a supportable position on the issue. Gun control, immigration, sky-high college tuition: there are innumerable issues on which Americans hear many voices, so it seems entirely appropriate and even essential that we teach our kids to learn the skill of making sense of the various positions and forming an opinion of their own.
While I am okay with the skills my freshmen and sophomores are expected to demonstrate, I do have concerns about the pieces they will be required to read in order to show these skills.
Let’s see how you would do. Read the two beginnings of the excerpts from the sample items released and tell me how enticed you are to keep reading.
“I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavor. It is something to be able to paint a particular picture, or to carve a statue, and so to make a few objects beautiful; but it is far more glorious to carve and paint the very atmosphere and medium through which we look, which morally we can do. To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour.” ~ Henry David Thoreau, Walden
“The first in time and the first in importance of the influences upon the mind is that of nature. Every day, the sun; and, after sunset, night and her stars. Ever the winds blow; ever the grass grows. Every day, men and women, conversing, beholding and beholden. The scholar is he of all men whom this spectacle most engages. He must settle its value in his mind. What is nature to him? There is never a beginning, there is never an end, to the inexplicable continuity of this web of God, but always circular power returning into itself.~ Ralph Waldo Emerson, “The American Scholar”
Can you imagine reading that, with no guidance, when you were 14 or 15 years old and making sense out of it? It is interesting to note that Emerson and Thoreau are part of the common core curriculum for 11th grade, even though the AIR tests will be given in Ohio to 9th and 10th graders. I teach Emerson and Thoreau to my juniors, and once we pull out some key quotes from the pieces and really look at the big ideas, the concept of transcendentalism is actually something they can not only understand, but can find examples of in modern music, movies, and even comics. It takes time, however. If I were to just give them excerpts of work from either of those 19th century authors and told them to read and comprehend them, it would be a daunting task.
The topic of the argumentative writing task that has been released for the high school ELA tests is not much better. Students are asked to read a few selections about whether or not antiquities currently in museums should be returned to their original cultures. I’m guessing that the average 9th or 10th grader taking this test will not be terribly passionate about this issue. True, passion is not required to choose a position and support it, but what would it hurt to choose one of the many current news topics that would be of more interest to the kids and ask them to form an opinion about that?
It seems, based on the very small sample set released as of the end of December for the high school ELA AIR tests, the topics on the test will not be high-interest to teenagers. To be fair, the released writing prompt for the 7th grade ELA test is about the impact of video games on teens’ health. But that is the ONLY topic released for that grade level. The only writing prompt released for 8th grade asks students to read two selections about Machu Picchu and then write “an informational article on Machu Picchu for a website that focuses on travel to places of historical interest”, explaining to tourists “the significance of Machu Picchu as a travel destination”. Many of our students are lucky to have been able to travel out of Ohio, and writing for a website about travel to Machu Picchu, to them, must sound like writing about traveling to Mars.
In getting my classes ready for the test, should I find articles about current topics that are relevant to them and therefore might motivate them to put forth some effort? Or am I doing a disservice to them if I do not prepare them for the tedium of the antiquated topics the test may present? If the topics are outdated or of little relevance to their lives, they will likely lose interest before we even start. On the other hand, if the nonfiction we read in class is something they have heard about or is a topic that affects them in some way, they will be more likely to engage in the activities, and the more engaged they are, the better they will learn the skills I am trying to teach them.
If we must have high-stakes tests to evaluate what our students are capable of understanding or doing, why not make the tasks more relevant to what we want them to be able to do after they graduate from high school? We want them to be ready to analyze the issues affecting our communities and to make informed decisions about those issues. Why can’t the tests reflect that?
It is clear that when it comes to getting ready for the high-stakes tests, we don’t have enough to work with and what we have isn’t usually very relevant to our kids.
“Do what’s best for the kids” is a mantra that gets many educators through the challenge of jumping through various state-inflicted hoops, including the required tests. I have to wonder, though, if doing what’s best for the kids is something that the Ohio Department of Education or our legislators ever consider. Or could it be that these tests are more politically motivated than educationally sound?
I’m trying to prepare my kids for the tests. I really am. But it seems I just keep finding more questions than answers.