Saturday, June 02, 2007

Testing, 1-2-3 (and 4)

Chancellor Klein has decreed that high school kids will be tested quarterly in both English and mathematics. This, the chancellor says, will have no bearing on rating teachers, granting tenure, or rating schools. Perhaps the chancellor is giving these tests in the hope that they will be ignored and discarded, as his first two reorganizations have been.

However, I doubt that very much. These tests will become the Holy Grail. If kids do well, Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein are geniuses. If not, the teachers stink, and will become the topic of many an outraged tabloid editorial.

As an ESL teacher, I'm very concerned about this. Since the country, the state and the city have determined that English testing must be the same for all kids, whether they were born here or arrived 30 minutes ago from China, I expect to waste a great deal of time and energy training kids to pass these tests.

When New York State, in its infinite wisdom, determined ESL students had to pass the English Regents Examination to graduate high school, we worked out very formulaic methods of showing kids how to beat the test. Though kids pass, I'm absolutely certain the skills they learn are good for nothing but getting through this particular 6 hours. The simplistic, barely acceptable rigid four-paragraph essay form is not much prized by college instructors or anyone else. The notion that you can analyze literature if you can define a dozen literary terms is ridiculous.

My kids would benefit much more from intensive practical instruction in English. I suspect this test regimen will net them substantially less. Many already know how to write in their native languages and would transfer their skills, if only we gave them enough time and support to master English.

It's very sad when beginning students get dumped into Regents classes instead of being taught basic communication. It's not so good for advanced students either. As I have to focus on literature they can easily use on the essays, I concentrate on very short poems and stories with very simple messages that they can apply easily to the quotes on the Regents exams.

Given more time, I'd prefer to make kids read real books, to try and make them love and appreciate literature rather than plod through it for the sole purpose of passing a required test. I'd like to discuss books in great detail rather than saying A falls in love with B, B dumps A, therefore the characters are A and B, the theme is Love Stinks, and the setting is A's backyard in New Jersey.

I don't love that, and understandably, kids don't either. Kids who love to read can excel in many things other than the NY State English Regents. Testing is fine, I give tests at least every other week, but forcing McGraw Hill's interpretation of English Language Arts down the throats of every high school kid in the city is likely to be a very bad idea.
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