Friday, October 16, 2009

Standardized tests, editing inappropriate materials...

At parent/teacher conferences last night, the parents of one of my Junior English students mentioned that they felt an article I had read in class with my students was inappropriate. The article was a New York Times editorial about how standardized tests are graded, and who is grading them, written by a former test grader, Todd Farley. I thought the article made a lot of good points about the subjectivity of these tests, and I gave it to my students for several reasons: I think it's a great example of an editorial, it's extremely relevant to them and their experiences, and I thought it would make for good discussion. We read mostly fiction in my classes, so I try to bring in current non-fiction whenever possible to vary things and to help those students who don't like to read fiction connect with my curriculum. (I am also really sick of students deciding they are "bad writers" or "can't write" or just generally are stupid on the basis of their standardized test scores.)

The parents' primary problem with the editorial was that one of the examples the author gives of a subjective decision test-graders are forced to make is that of how to grade the movie review of a ninth-grade student who chooses to review Debbie Does Dallas. The parents told me it just wasn't appropriate, that it would give a teenage boy ideas, that maybe if the article didn't name a movie specifically it would be okay, but to say Debbie Does Dallas! Maybe if it just said "an inappropriate movie," they suggested--I said, "or a pornographic movie?" and they nodded as if maybe that would be okay, and told me that I should have changed it. The dad said, "Because it was printed in an adult newspaper, the New York Times is for adult readers, and they're teenagers, so not everything is going to be appropriate for them."

He also told me that since these tests are so important, maybe it wasn't appropriate for them to read something so critical of the tests, and at the very least, if I was going to have students reading something like this, they should read something giving the other side too. I said that we discussed the article at length in class, and students came up with those points on their own--I didn't want to give them both sides because I wanted them to think it through, and they did. I told the parents that we had a very good discussion of the article, talking about the tests, and testing, and who should grade them, and how these problems could be fixed. We talked about what was good about the author's opinions, and what wasn't.

I was proud of myself for how I handled this. I didn't argue, I nodded a lot, I addressed their concerns, and when they left I said, "Thank you for sharing your opinion, I can see where you're coming from on this, and I appreciate you letting me know. I'm sorry you felt it was inappropriate." They smiled and nodded and walked away.

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