So where do you keep your hoes, if you are lucky enough to have any in the first place or you have a living environment that requires (or at least facilitates the use of) them?
My friend teaches elementary school in a low-income, urban public school with a large Spanish-speaking population. “Low-income” doesn’t really cover it: She works in one of the poorest, most dangerous cities in the United States. Of course, despite those characteristics, children still live there.
So, she soldiers on. Well, “soldier” doesn’t really cover it: She loves her job.
But it is challenging. Recently, her fourth-grade students were faced with a multiple choice question on a standardized language arts test that went something like this:
Identify the underlined word:
The farmer placed the hoe in the shed.
A) Garden tool
C) Bag of seeds
D) None of the above
Every child in her class chose “None of the above.”
During lunch, she said, the kids were all talking about this particular question. So after lunch the fourth-grade teachers had a conversation with the students about, well “hoes.” The kids were shocked to discover that the hoe wasn’t the farmer’s woman, but a garden tool.
One kid then raised his hand and said, “What’s a shed?”
Let’s boil this down to the micro level. Every child in the class got this question wrong. Thus, the state or whatever overseeing, administrative, non-educational body will thus record a 0% success rate for the class on this language arts test question (keep in mind, this was not a test of their understanding of the main ideas of the course “Garden Implements 101.”)
But their error isn’t about language or understanding linguistic or grammatical concepts. It’s not about reading comprehension. Conceptually, these kids were wondering what on earth a shed is and why a farmer (obviously a man to them, by the way) would put his “hoe,” his woman, in it? Had the “hoe” been bad? Was a “shed” a place of punishment for naughty “hoes”?
Who knows what you think of this story. Maybe you think it’s funny. Maybe you think it’s sad. Maybe you’re angry and you think anyone in America, right after knowing the words to the Pledge of Allegiance, should know what the hell a “hoe” is. Maybe you think everyone should be like you, even if they grow up with Spanish-speaking parents in one of the poorest, most dangerous cities in America. Maybe you don’t care.
You may have any of those feelings, but you can’t think they did poorly on the test because they don’t understand nouns, verbs, or language arts concepts. These children, nine and ten years old, did poorly because of their particular cultural reality in America in 2013.
My friend wrote to me, “I guess it is difficult to understand the true meaning of ‘hoe’ and ‘shed’ if you live in an apartment in the city and you have never gone anywhere beyond the limits of the city.”
So for that question, they got a zero. Aggregate a bunch of standardized test questions like that, and the kids bomb it, look bad, and the school is in trouble.
Remember people who will never go near your school and never talk to its staff care a lot about test results of which this hoe question is just an example. Money is doled out. Teachers and administrators get fired. Districts get redefined. This all happens regardless of whether the test measures anything other than the fact that a child never got a chance to see a farm, or maybe even a garden, first-hand and maybe never even had a book about farms, or a book about anything, in their homes.
My friend added that her school overall is supposed to show yearly progress based on the test scores. The school’s effectiveness is measured in that way. Yet, she said, the kids who succeed on tests like this — hoe questions aside, I suppose, since they all failed that one — normally transfer to a charter school the next year. So the top-scoring testers leave, yet each year the school is supposed to improve its passing percentage.
Warrior that she is, my friend still loves her job — because she loves her colleagues and those kids, kids who are consistently held crookedly next to a standardized testing yardstick.
What are we measuring? We can do better than tests that are more measures of the places and ways in which kids are raised than the potential in their little brains – or the efforts of the die-hard teachers who work with them every day.
Next time, maybe she’ll just bring a hoe into school. You and I both know that’s a perfectly ethical way to help kids learn.