When I realized I couldn’t answer the questions posed about two of my own poems on the Texas state assessment tests (STAAR), I had a flash of panic—oh, no! Not smart enough. I checked to see if anyone was looking. The questions began to swim on the page. Waves of insecurity. My brain in full spin.
The two poems in question are “A Real Case,” which appeared on the 2014 Grade 7 STAAR Reading Test, and “Midnight,” which appeared on the 2013 Grade 8 STAAR Reading Test. Both poems originally appeared in Walking on the Boundaries of Change (Boyds Mills Press, 1998).
Let me begin by confessing that “A Real Case” is my most neurotic poem. I have a pile of them, but this one is the sour cherry on top. The written evidence of my anxieties, those evil gremlins that ride around on tricycles in my mind, shooting my self-confidence with water pistols. How in the name of all that’s moldy did this poem wind up on a proficiency test?
Dose of reality: Test makers are for-profit organizations. My poems are a lot cheaper than Mary Oliver’s or Jane Kenyon’s, so there’s that. But how would your vulnerable, nervous, No. 2 pencil-gripping 7th-grade self have felt opening your test packet to analyze these poetic lines:
I’m just down with a sniffly case
an unexpected extra serving
Seriously? Hundreds of my poems in print and they choose that one? I apologize to those kids. I apologize to their teachers. I apologize to the entire state of Texas. I know the ’90s were supposed to be some kind of golden age, but I had my bad days and clearly, these words are the pan drippings of one of them.
Did I have a purpose for writing it? Does survival count?
Teachers are also trying to survive as they try to teach kids how to take these tests, which they are told to do by digging through past tests posted online. Forget joy of language and the fun of discovery in poetry, this is line-by-line dissection, painful and without anesthetic. One teacher, Sean, working after 10 p.m., wrote to me last month, trying to figure out the test maker’s interpretation of my poem “Midnight.” This poem isn’t quite as jarring as “A Real Case”; it’s about insomnia.
Sean wrote: “Hello Mrs. Holbrook. I’m an 8th-grade English teacher in Texas. I’m attempting to decipher the number of stanzas in your poem “Midnight.” This isn’t clear from the formatting in our most recent benchmark. The assessment asks the following question:
Dividing the poem into two stanzas allows the poet to:
- Compare the speaker’s schedule with the train’s schedule.
- Ask questions to keep the reader guessing about what will happen.
- Contrast the speaker’s feelings about weekends and Mondays.
- Incorporate reminders for the reader about where the action takes place.
According to STAAR, the answer is C. How many stanzas are in this poem? Where are they located? I would appreciate your help. Thank you so much!” Oh, goody. I’m a benchmark. I texted Sean an image of how the poem appeared in the original publication. Problem one solved. But I just put that stanza break in there because when I read it aloud (I’m a performance poet), I pause there. That is not an option among the answers because no one ever asked me why I did it. These test questions were just made up, and 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.
After I responded to Sean, I went online and searched Holbrook/”Midnight”/ Texas and the results were terrifying. Dozens of districts, all dissecting this poem based on poorly formatted test prep materials. Texas, please know, this was not the author’s purpose in writing this poem.
At the end of this article is a question-by-question breakdown of the test questions on “A Real Case” and my thinking as I attempted to answer them. Fair warning: Your eyes are going to glaze over as you read them. But try to hang in there. Pretend your future depends on it—that you might not be promoted into the next grade with all the other kids and will have to remain in 7th grade for the rest of your life.
Meantime, here is my question:
Does this guessing game mostly evidence:
- The literacy mastery of the student?
The competency of the student’s teacher?
- The absurdity of the questions?
- The fact that the poet definitely has issues?
Let’s go with D. I definitely have issues, including issues with these ridiculous test questions. The same year that “Midnight” appeared on the STAAR test, Texas paid Pearson some 500 million bucks to administer the tests. Test scorers, who are routinely hired from ads on Craigslist, receive scant training, as reported by Dan DiMaggio in the Monthly Review. I’m not sure what the qualifications are for the people who make up the questions, but the ability to ride unicorns comes to mind.
Now comes research that reveals that a simple demographic study could have accurately predicted the outcomes, no desks or test packets needed. Educator/author Peter Greene reports:
[Christopher Tienken and his fellow researchers] have demonstrated that we do not need to actually give the Common Core-linked Big Standardized Test in order to generate the “student achievement” data, because we can generate the same data by looking at demographic information all by itself.
Tienken and his team used just three pieces of demographic data:
- Percentage of families in the community with income over $200K.
- Percentage of people in the community in poverty.
- Percentage of people in the community with bachelor’s degrees.
Using that data alone, Tienken was able to predict school district test results accurately in most cases.
Now technically, Texas does not adhere to the Common Core, but since their tests are written and administered by the same behemoth, Pearson, it’s fair to draw parallels.
When I heard the campaign promises to eliminate the Common Core made by Donald Trump, I thought, Yeah, right. Wait until someone educates him on how much money is being made making kids miserable with these useless tests. Talk is cheap. School testing is big bucks, and those testers are not going down without a fight.
Stop It. Just Stop It.
The only way to stop this nonsense is for parents to stand up and say, no more. No more will I let my kid be judged by random questions invented and scored by people who never met them. That’s not education, that’s idiotic.
Hair-splitting questions pertaining to nothing but profit-driven motives on the part of the testing companies and test results that simply reveal the income and education level of the parents—for this we need to pay hundreds of millions of dollars and waste 10-45 days of classroom time each year? More if you consider the number of days spent in test prep?
What creative ideas might Sean have been cooking up at 10 p.m. on a cold Wednesday night to excite his kids about reading and learning if he hadn’t been wandering down this loopy labyrinth? Would he have been drafting a lesson plan for those kids to develop their writing skills through creating their own poetry? Maybe by leading kids to poetry instead of force-feeding it to them, Sean could have helped them sort through their own neuroses, become better adults, and see themselves as something other than a test score. Or maybe he just would have been catching an extra hour of sleep to feel energized for the colossal task he is faced with every day: turning on adolescents to reading, writing, and learning.
But we can’t know that, because at 10 p.m. on Dec. 13, 2016, Sean was writing to me, trying to decipher misleading test prep materials he’d been handed to ready his kids for a test they will take sometime next spring.
I may be neurotic, but this is crazy. But then, what do I know. I can’t answer the questions on my own poetry.