It has been almost a year since I started clipping newspaper articles about the California Learning Assessment System. When my daughter's sample test came home recently, I concluded that I had no choice but to get involved.
So, to actual questions found in the CLAS language arts sample test, here are one mother's actual answers:
* What feelings do you have about what is happening in the story?
Frustration and anger. Our kids are being given a controversial test that virtually no one is allowed to examine. Parents pass around worn test samples; students swap their own tales about the contents. Most lawmakers are not permitted to see what they are voting to fund. Critics are all accused by the state Department of Education of spreading misinformation.
* Tell us anything else about your understanding of this story--what it means to you, what it makes you think about in your own life, or anything that relates to your reading of it?
One 10th-grade sample test has a story by Kate Chopin about a woman who, after hearing that her husband has died in an accident, whispers to herself, "Free! Body and soul free!" Later, when the woman sees her husband walk into the house, she herself dies "of joy that kills."
What does this mean to the mind of a 10th-grader? One sample "high-range performance" answer says, "I think that maybe her husband had . . . limited her life to suit him. For this reason I'm glad she can finally be free. Did he beat her?"
I relate to this question by asking whether literature is supposed to be directly related to the reader's life. Of course great literature is built on powerful themes. But how much of it is "about" our lives--particularly if we are in the 10th grade?
Is its direct relevance to our lives a measure of its quality as literature? And how can we abandon our children in a challenging literary world without meaningful context or guidance?
* Select a line that interests you or makes you think. Then tell why you chose that line.
I chose a quote from the Department of Education's own description of CLAS: "Since the construction of meaning is the essence of both reading and writing, the new assessment allows students to shape the outcome rather than to identify correct meanings that test makers have posited."
CLAS is repeatedly called a test with rigorous standards. Look at what it doesn't ask. It doesn't ask about plot, structure, conflict, cause and effect, climax or resolution.
It doesn't ask about character development, context, point of view or dialogue. It doesn't ask about the author's descriptions, technique, rhythm, vocabulary or use of language.
It asks for thoughts and feelings and questions. How long does it take for kids to figure out that having thoughts, feelings and questions is a lot easier than actually knowing something? This is rigorous? This is better than "mindless" multiple-choice tests? This is reform?
No, this is a major shift in educational philosophy away from gaining knowledge to "constructing meaning through transactions with the text."
* Below is an "open mind" drawing of the main character's head. If you could look into his (or her) mind, what thoughts and feelings might you find?
Let's look into the mind of the educators and politicians behind this fiasco. Frankly, I don't think there's much here to analyze. I'll just leave this drawing empty. Empty of understanding of what constitutes a quality education. Empty of concern for parents' rights. Empty of intellectual responsibility.
* Share your ideas with your group. Be sure everyone has a chance to share.
Yes, the students are asked to discuss their thoughts and feelings in a group before completing their final essay. In the true CLAS spirit, I shared my thoughts and feelings in a meeting of parents concerned about the future of education. We weren't "well-organized" or "well-financed" as those critical of CLAS have been described. We were just parents who cared less about what our kids feel than what they know.
* Write what you think is going to happen next.
I think that the CLAS test will fail. Not only is it secretive, subjective and invasive, but it is thoroughly ineffective as an evaluation tool.
Where are the studies proving CLAS will achieve the "valid, reliable, individual" results its makers proclaim? How can each teacher-grader possibly examine our children's individual "meaningful encounters" with consistency, accuracy, impartiality and undivided attention?
The "rigorous standards" of CLAS are not keeping our kids up at night. There were no sweaty palms and upset tummies at my house. One student quoted in a news story was more concerned about his PE final--"We gotta run the mile today. Everyone's pretty nervous. We have to do our personal best."
Gee. "Personal best" is such an old-fashioned concept. Couldn't they share the mile? Why a mile ? Why not let them run 10 yards and then talk about it for four minutes?