They Call This Data?

Oscar Wilde, Svab, and my students

By Amy Gutowski

Illustrator: Pjbf

According to the “data” collected on our fourth and final ThinkLink benchmark of the past school year, most of my 3rd graders had a hard time reading a paraphrased excerpt from Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. I was shocked. I mean, why would 8- and 9-year-olds in Milwaukee (or anywhere else for that matter) have trouble reading Oscar Wilde? The questions were so simple for a beginning reader to decode. For example:

Read this sentence from the passage. He laid particular stress on your German, as he was leaving for town yesterday. Now look at the dictionary entry:

stress noun
1 worries caused by difficulties in life
2 saying a word or part of a word more stongly than another
3 force of weight caused by something heavy
4 to give importance to something

Which meaning of stress is used in the sentence above? (A.1, B.2, C.3, D.4)

But wait. What is the correct answer anyway? I’m confused. I guess I’m going to have to dust off my AP anthologies from high school if I’m going to teach to this test.

According to the “formative” assessment “data” my 3rd graders also had trouble reading a story called “The Broken Pot.” In this paraphrased tale — what is it with all the paraphrasing on these tests anyway; would it be too much to ask that my students read a whole story, written for children? — there’s a Brahman by the name of Svab. He has to beg for food. One day he receives a large pot of rice gruel, eats a bit, then hangs the leftovers on a nail above his bed. While full in his bed, his mind gets away with him, and he has greedy thoughts of selling the rice gruel, then buying goats, then trading goats for cattle, then trading calves for horses, horses have foals, he can sell the foals, etc. Then eventually he will meet a beautiful girl with a dowry. (And how many 3rd graders know what a dowry is? Just curious.) Anyway, Svab gets carried away with his thoughts, startles himself, and knocks the pot of rice gruel on his own head. Now, this is the part that kills me — the moral: “He who makes foolish plans for the future will be white all over, like Svab.” Huh? Most of my students are children of color. Imagine their surprise at the ending. Some of my students laughed out loud. They didn’t get it. I didn’t get it either.

I don’t think any of us will “get it” until this obsession with prepackaged testing ends. It’s so absurd, it’s almost funny, like straight out of an Onion article. But I’m not laughing when during a staff meeting, after a long day of working with kids in the classroom, I’m staring at a projection of a large, fancy, color-coded, computer-generated bar graph showing the dismal results of our last reading benchmark, being told my students don’t know how to analyze text. I’m not laughing when we spend hours drafting our ed plan, discussing how we can bring up our test scores. I’m so very tired of wasting my valuable time discussing this so-called data. Instead, I’ll continue to tell tales of the insanity of it all, hoping that one day, my 3rd graders will no longer be subjected to such nonsense.

Amy Gutowski ( teaches 3rd grade in Milwaukee Public Schools. She wrote “Think Less Benchmarks,” in the spring 2008 issue of Rethinking Schools.