The slightly-cranky voice navigating the world of educational “reform” while trying to still pursue the mission of providing quality education.
Thursday, October 27, 2016
Reflect now. Now!! NOW!!!
A standardized test is the only place where students are told, “Starting from scratch, read this, reflect on it, answer questions about it, and do it all in the next fifteen minutes.” We accept the accelerated time line as a normal feature of assessment, but why?
Never ever in a college course was a student handed a book for the first time and told, “Read this book and write an intelligent, thoughtful paper about the text. Hand it in sixty minutes from now.”
Reflective, thoughtful, deep, even close reading, the kind of reading that reformsters insist they want, takes time. The text has to be read and considered carefully. Theories about the ideas, the themes, the characters, the author’s use of language, the thoughtful consideration of the various elements of the writing– those all need time to percolate, to simmer, to be mulled by the reader. Those of us who teach literature and reading in high school never have to tell our students, “Hurry up and zip through that faster.” Most commonly we have to find ways to encourage our students to slow down, pay attention, really think about what they’re reading instead of trying to race to the end.
A reader’s relationship with a text, like any good relationship, takes time. It may start with a certain slow grudging acquaintance or necessity, or it may start with an instant spark of attraction, but either way, if the relationship is going to have any depth or quality, time and care will have to be invested. Standardized tests are the “hit it and quit it” of the reading world.
The reasons that we test this way are obvious. Test manufacturers want a short, closed test period so that no test items can “leak,” though, of course, some of the best reflection on reading comes through discussion and sharing. English teachers have adopted reading circles for a reason. Test manufacturers also want to keep the testing experience uniform, which means a relatively short, set time (the longer the test lasts, the more variables creep in). But it’s important to note that none of the reasons that we test this way have anything to do with more effectively testing the skills we say we want to test.
There’s a whole other discussion to be had about trying to treat reading skills as discrete abilities that exist and can be measured in a vacuum without any concern about the content being read. They can’t, but even if they could, none of the skills we say we want in readers are tested by the instant quicky test method. We say we want critical thinking, deep reading, and reflection beyond simple recall and fact-spitting, but none of that fits with the cold-reading and instant analysis method used in tests. We test as if we want to train students to cold read and draw conclusions quickly, in an isolated brief period.
This is nuts. It is a skill set that pretty much nobody is looking for, an ability favored by no-one, and yet, it is a fundamental part of the Big Standardized Test. No– I take that back. This is a set of skills that is useful if you want to train a bunch of people to read and follow directions quickly and compliantly. That’s about it.
Real reading takes time. Real reflection takes time. Both are best served by a rich environment that includes other thoughtful readers and resources to enrich the experience. To write any sort of thoughtful, deep, or thorough reflection on that reading also takes time.
If policymakers were serious about building critical thinking, deep reading skills, and thoughtful responses to the text, they would not consider BS Tests like the PARCC for even five minutes. It is one more area where stated intent and actual actions are completely out of alignment.