Monkeys, Pouches, and Reading

What does it do to young children, and how does it distort good teaching, when reading success is determined on the basis of a single test?

By Kate Lyman

I’m trying. I-I-I really am,” stuttered Jordan, between sobs. “I just can’t read this.”

What Jordan couldn’t read was the passage from the 1997 Wisconsin Reading Comprehension Test. Jordan, along with 56,477 other third-grade students in the state, was not only required to take the test, but, according to our school board, would soon be required to pass it.

Passing the Wisconsin Reading Comprehension Test (commonly referred to as the Third Grade Reading Test) is considered by our district to be a “gateway” skill. In November 1998, the Madison School Board accepted the recommendation from a subcommittee that reading on grade level be required of all third-grade students. What to do with students who do not meet this “requirement” is still an open question. Our former superintendent lobbied for retention. Other options are being discussed, such as required summer school classes and after-school remedial work. Meanwhile, as each school’s test scores are published annually in the newspaper, there is pressure on teachers — and hence on students — to get good scores.

The Wisconsin Reading Comprehension Test is given annually to all third graders who do not qualify for an exemption based on limited-English proficiency or recommendations included in the Individualized Education Plans of special education students. The test consists of three long passages, two fiction and one non-fiction, followed by a total of 63 multiple-choice questions. The students may refer back to the passages as they search for the correct answers to the questions. The questions require different skills, including direct recall of information, making inferences, drawing conclusions, comparing and contrasting, and identifying the character’s and author’s points of view. In 1998, the categories were changed from three to four: “minimal,” “basic,” “proficient,” and “advanced.” State legislation has made it mandatory for students who fall into the “minimal” category to be evaluated to determine if they are in need of special education or remedial services. In 1998, 5.1% of the students tested statewide fell into this category. In schools with large low-income populations, the percentage falling in the “minimal” category is higher. In my school it was 13.3%.

I translate the numbers into Jordan and the other third-grade students in my class who struggle with the test. Failure, retention, mandated remedial work … what would those experiences do to their already fragile egos? Because of its length, the difficulty of its passages, and its lack of relevance to students’ background knowledge, the Third Grade Reading Test is a challenge to all but the strongest readers.

Assessment is important, but there are better ways to evaluate students’ achievement than by giving them a test that may brand them as failures in third grade. All the skills tested in the Third Grade Reading Test can be assessed through student work collected in journals and portfolios, text level reading inventories, observations, and performance tests. Can a student find, read, and report on information detailing the life cycle of an animal self-selected for a research topic? Has a student demonstrated in a reading journal the skill of comparing and contrasting two characters in a trade book? Can the student read a third-grade-level biography of a human rights activist and summarize the main events in that person’s life? Assessments which fit into classroom learning and are relevant to students’ lives and interests give the students with weaker academic and/or emotional skills a chance to succeed.

Yet the only reading assessment that is considered to be a legitimate measure of a third-grade student’s skill in reading is the Wisconsin Student Reading Assessment.

Students Struggle

Jordan wore his jeans on his hips and his Nikes unlaced. His “cool” image was thin, though, and easily shattered by his inability to meet grade-level standards. By his mother’s accounts, her heavy drug use during pregnancy had probably affected him neurologically, resulting in learning and behavior problems. He tried hard to “be good,” but his short attention span and hyperactivity were to his disadvantage. His mom was in the process of taking him to a doctor for a possible diagnosis of ADHD; the school was considering testing him for special education. However, in March, when the Third Grade Reading Test was given, Jordan did not have a specific label for his difficulty with reading. He had to take the test.

The other students who were struggling with the test that year had similar stories. One girl, Rita, was very likely learning disabled, but her parents were monitoring her progress, not yet ready to lay a label on her. Another girl, Tasha, had come into my classroom as a second grader with virtually no reading skills, but a lot of street knowledge. “You can’t imagine all I seen,” she had confided the first week of school. Tasha had made tremendous progress in the year and a half she was my student. She could read fourth-grade level stories at the time of the test. Tasha, however, who read well when motivated, was obviously bored when she took the test. She wiggled in her seat, getting up and down and finishing the stories and short-answer questions quickly.

“Did you check over your answers?” I asked.

“Yeah,” she said, picking up the book that she really wanted to read, the biography of an African-American girl who was a spy during the Revolutionary War.

Eric also was capable of reading the text, but spent most of his time poking his pencil through the holes of the pegboard next to his desk. He had been seeing a psychologist for an anxiety disorder.

Every teacher I know struggles with the issue of giving “high-stakes” tests to students like these who, despite all the time and effort put into teaching them reading skills and providing intervention, lack the academic or social/emotional skills to pass the test. Some teachers respond to the pressure by “teaching to the test” — copying old tests and then, starting as early as second grade, regularly having students read them and practice finding the right answers.

Understandable as this reaction is, it goes against all that recent studies have proven to be “best practice” in teaching reading. Questions such as whether a student enjoys reading, is able to apply reading to real-life issues, or is capable of choosing books at an independent level and reading for sustained periods of time, have become superceded by “but will he/she pass the Third Grade Reading Test?” Furthermore, a teacher who questions the validity of using reading time for test practice, or who refuses to accept the assumption that all children should be required to master skills at the same age, will be accused of lacking commitment.

“Don’t you believe that all the students in your classroom can learn?” was the response I received from a district learning coordinator when I challenged assumptions about using one standardized measure to determine a student’s progress.

Yes. In fact, I passionately insist that my students are all bright, capable students. They are not only capable of learning to read and write and do math, but they can do much more.

Jordan, the “tough boy,” had been so moved by the personal presentation of a gay guest speaker that he volunteered to go into another classroom to confront issues of name calling and homophobia. Rita had written a long story about a family caught in the tensions of the Civil Rights struggles. Tasha, as the attorney for “The Big Bad Wolf” in a class trial, had done such an outstanding job that the jury had declared the wolf “innocent.” Eric had surprised everyone by volunteering to participate in a Women’s History Panel in which he had effectively taken on the role of a female scientist who worked with sharks.

But the Third Grade Reading Test doesn’t ask you to write historical fiction or to present information through a role play or to argue for the rights of others. It only wants you to fill in the dots with the number two pencil.

“How do Old World monkeys use their pouches?

a. They store food in them.

b. They help monkeys hang from trees.

c. They carry their young in them.

d. They make chattering sounds with them.”

I looked around the room. Most of the students were finished with the passage, engrossed in their own books. Jordan had laid his head down upon his open text booklet.

Kate Lyman teaches in Madison, WI. The names of the children have been changed.