educationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

Where do you keep your hoes?: Standardized tests are destroying education, part 4 (of 874)

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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
B) Calf
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.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the writing center. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.
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10 Responses to “Where do you keep your hoes?: Standardized tests are destroying education, part 4 (of 874)”

  1. Scott! I love your posts! Don’t even get me started on the standardized testing in public schools though! I have 2 kids in a great public school in the midwest. My kids score within the highest limits of these tests. This year my 5th grader got pulled out of study hall and sent to a math tutor because her “advanced” test score last year wasn’t advanced enough for the school district to feel confident she was going to score higher this year. She came home telling me she’s not good at math and her teacher thinks she’s stupid. She’s getting an A in math right now with a 95% grade. WTH??? Ugh! I’m seriously looking into private or catholic school for her next year. I feel like she’s getting an excellent education in her public school, but I don’t like the way things are done in regards to standardized testing in public schools. This public school may be loosing 2 of it’s highest testers.

  2. Down here in these here parts, teachers do not have tenure. Their teaching prowess is measured through standardized tests calls MAP. Children are given goals they are to meet/exceed. All kinds of stress gets put on the kids: “you haven’t met your mid-year goal, better stay on top of it.” Notes are sent home with study guides and suggestions and reminders about how important exceeding MAP goals is. Jackson is being tested for the gifted program and is afraid he won’t be promoted to 3rd grade because of the pressure his teacher is putting on him. It’s ridiculous. I’m glad I’m a transplant and can just shrug it off and let him know his best is good enough.

    It’s the same everywhere, though–trying to make some “simple” benchmarks to monitor progress and success. But nothing is simple.

    We can keep on trying, but everyone (students, teachers, employees, senators, administrators, coaches) still must continue to justify their existence to someone–to whomever that might be.

  3. First, I completey agree that standardized tests are way over-employed in the administrative decisions (particularly funding) in our schools. Rarely, in any enterprise do we measure the performance of multiple entities (students, teahcers, schools) with one metric– particularly one that has so many confounding variables, as you point out.

    However, the example of the “hoe” question is mostly an example of a bad question, if, as you assert, it was part of a reading comprehension test. Even a student who knew the words “farmer” and “shed” would still have to guess, since a calf or a bag of seeds could also be placed in a shed by a farmer.

    There are lots of things that standardized testing can measure accurately. Math, for example, has no cultural bias. Standardized tests can and should be used as a reliable means of feedback and a diagnostic tool. What matters is what we choose to do with the results.

  4. I just want to go on record as being one of the people standardized tests anger. I am afraid if I elaborate too much, I will work myself into a frenzy and throw my new MacBook Pro into the nearby Ohio River. One can only hope (or at least I do) that these tests, used as any measure of educational progress or intellectual aptitude, go the way of the red-state, ultra-conservative, culturally ignorant…and slowly disappear.

  5. The worst thing is that this issue you are talking about has been a problem since just about the inception of standardized testing. It has been generally ignored, outside of some teachers complaining about it — but, of course, no one listens to them. Just for perspective, there is an episode of the old TV sitcom Good Times that deals with it.

  6. Wonderful article. Thank you for shedding light on the real issue. My son was removed from “Advanced Math” in 8th grade because he was 2 points shy of being “Advanced Proficient” on the NJASK the previous year. Even though, he earned straight A’s in “Advanced Math” in 7th grade. However, district policy stated that they could only be in “Advanced Math” if they were “Advanced Proficient” on the NJASK.

  7. If they really want to help these kids they will work at getting them better test scores. Better scores equals more funding which makes for a better school.
    Better schools equals a better future for those ignorant little urchins. Teachers need to teach to the test.
    An leave the hoes out of it.

  8. As you know Scott, Charlene has been teaching for 16 years in underprivaledged districts. There’s a basic element of sadness to this discussion that should be addressed, too. Every year, she informally polls kids about things they’ve done and experienced in life, and consistently fewer than 30% of her students (kids from South Jersey, I should note) have never see the ocean or been to the beach. These kids lack some basic experiences that make tests impossible.

  9. Many years ago, in a wonderful little town in South Jersey, every child in my class asked what “pop” was after finishing a standardized test section. In this particular question, it referred to what we call…soda. Not one of my kids knew that in the section of our nation where this old test had been written, our “soda” was called “pop”! And the confusion continues after all these years. I was furious that day and still feel at a loss for not being able to remedy the anxiety generated by these standardized tests. Measuring progress is important, but true learning is much more than one standard test score.

  10. When I was in third grade–that would be about 1960–my teacher told my parents that I was not reading up to my potential, based on one of the California Tests that everyone in Mont. Co. MD took every other year. What would happen is that I would start reading–”Seven at One Blow” was from that year–and I would lose myself in the world that opened up for me. It’s not that I was slow reading–well, I was, but more on that later–it was that I really loved the world I was able to enter, and I wanted to explore it and, yes, to move slowly through it and savor it–to smell the roses there, as it were.

    Actually, being a slow reader meant that I retained what I read, because I really inhabited it. This came in really handy in graduate school, for example, when I could ask the Department Chairman’s question based on having read something a dozen years previously. I earned a Ph.D. in Comparative Literature, focusing on the French, Latin, and English Middle Ages. (Try to read Chretien de Troyes in the original Old French using Evelyn Wood’s Reading Dynamics!)

    Actually, though, I DO like standardized tests–I have regularly tested higher on the SATs and GREs than my slow reading speed would correlate with, and this has helped me get into colleges and graduate schools, back when that was an option. Now, I still read slowly, and it takes me forever to grade my four sections of freshman composition essays…but those students do have extensively annotated manuscripts returned to them.

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