Poet Sara Holbrook, who often writes humorous verse for kids, had some harsh words for the Texas Education Agency after she discovered she couldn’t answer questions about poems on the its standardized tests — poems she herself wrote.
In an essay for the Huffington Post, Holbrook wrote that she felt like “such a dunce” after she didn’t know the answers to questions posed on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) tests about her poems — “A Real Case” and “Midnight” — meant for seventh- and eighth-grade students.
“These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions,” Holbrook wrote.
Holbrook highlighted a number of questions from the tests, including one that asked students why she rendered one line in a poem in all capital letters. Students are asked to choose between four lettered options.
“Could be A. All caps is a way to highlight a fact, right?” Holbrook wrote. “I guess I wanted to stress the fact that the feeling belongs to TODAY, but maybe the answer is B. Let’s see, today is not tomorrow, could be that. But climbing into the test maker’s mind, I’m guessing they want the answer C. ... Not sure. Move on, lots to cover.”
Holbrook argues that asking students to dissect poems isn’t an effective way to teach them about the joys of literature.
“Teachers are also trying to survive as they are tasked with teaching kids how to take these tests, which they do by digging through past tests, posted online,” she wrote. “Forget joy of language and the fun of discovery in poetry, this is line-by-line dissection, painful and delivered without anesthetic.”
Texas’ STAAR tests are administered in part by Pearson Assessments, a testing company that Holbrook called a “sadistic behemoth.”
Holbrook wrote that asking students to guess an author’s intent in writing a piece of literature is doomed to be a pointless exercise.
“My final reflection is this: any test that questions the motivations of the author without asking the author is a big baloney sandwich,” she wrote. “Mostly test makers do this to dead people who can’t protest. But I’m not dead. I protest.”