I have only just typed this up from my notes but decided to publish in case anyone looking at my other two recent pieces would find it useful. I will be back to clean it up. Right now, I haven't even read through it once.
The morning of February 8th, Peter Greene's piece Sampling the PARCC came across my feed. Where Maine is not a PARCC state, I immediately wondered if a similar piece of criticism existed for Smarter Balanced's exam for high school students. I looked for a little bit, and when I came up empty handed, I decided why not just do it myself.
At this point I should probably mention I took the traditional route to get my teaching license. I majored in English and minored in secondary education. I attended college in Massachusetts, so I had to pass the Massachusetts teacher's licensing exam, including the English subject area exam, in order to student teach. When I came to Maine, I needed the Praxis exam for my license. Then later, I took the MRE to apply for grad school. So, I've taken standardized tests on this material myself as well as taught some of it to high school freshmen.
Now, I didn't the 11th grade MEA / Smarter Balanced exam right away for a few reasons. First of all, my children are quite young. I've been out of the classroom as a stay at home mom, so my focus has been on their educational experiences. But, I also didn't take the exam because I do not have excessive criticism of the standards for ELA incorporated in the Maine Learning Results from the Common Core State Standards. (I left teaching for my daughter's birth in 2009, so I missed teaching under the standards). I also believed that the test was not as much as an issue for older students because the standards were backwards mapped, and thus age appropriate, but also that they are better equipped to deal with the test on all level. However, after my experience with the 3rd grade exam and then reading Greene's piece, I no longer felt sure of my assumptions. I had to find out for myself.
My first section of the exam was on substantial in the fashion industry. I couldn't tell if you the passage was boring or not, because I didn't read it. I could answer all seven questions without taking any time to read the full piece on the left hand side. Any portions referenced were repeated on the right. Why waste my time reading stuff twice?
My first questions asked me to choose a detail that supports the conclusion presented to me. This had a traditional multiple choice format. The second question asked for the same skill, however, this time I read the provided conclusion, and then read three repeated paragraphs from the text and clicked on the actual sentence that supported that conclusion. Ran into a slight snag, though. Nothing happened when I clicked my chosen sentence. So, I scrolled over other sentences. Oh, the ones that are okay to choose from highlight blue. I won't be wasting time reading full paragraphs from here on out. I'll just look for the blue ones. Still, my answer wasn't there, so I had to pick the next best answer. It took two questions before I saw Greene's point that the test does not allow the reader to make their own meaning of the text. Instead, the student must guess at the test writer's interpretation of the text. I read a whole section in Rick Wormeli's book Fair Isn't Always Equal about how wrong that is just last week. Hmm, strange that no one at Smarter Balanced knows this.
Question number three asked me to pick the central idea (i.e. main idea) of the text from four options. Again, no room for my own interpretation of the text. And suddenly, it was clear to me why I struggled with these questions as a teenager.
Question four paused on evaluating main ideas and supporting deatils, and instead asked me to infer the meaning of a vocab word from the sentence. Of course, there is no inferring necessary I already know the meaning of the word.
Question five introduced two part questions. For part A, I picked a conclusion from the four provided. Then in part B, I choose the piece of evidence that best supports my choice from part A.
Part A of question six asked me to pick the reason an example was used in the text from four choices, and then part B asked me to actually click on the sentences from two paragraphs that support my choice in part A. There was a small problem with wording here. The question said "sentences" so a student might think more than once answer is necessary.
Question seven asked me how the first paragraph affected the overall structure of the piece. I'd consider that rich question for students of this age. However, I had to choose from four options instead of creating my own answer.
Now I moved on the second section of the test on fiction. Its from Life of Pi. I've read that book and seen the film in the last year. I am suddenly at a huge advantage over a student who has done neither because of the prior knowledge I bring to the exam based on my personal experiences and home life, two things the school system has no control over. Because I've read this book before, I do not waste time rereading the passage on the right and I go directly to the questions.
Question 8 provides me with a conclusion about the text and asks me to find a detail that supports it in a repeated paragraph. I check only the highlighted sentences.
Question 9 part A askes me to choose the centeral idea of a paragraph from four choices, and then part B asks me to choose the best support. There are two strong answers in part B that I would be happy to see a student argue in class discussion or an analytical essay.
Question 10 ask me to choose the centeral idea of the text out of the four options. Again, I believe there are two strong answers that I would be accept of students.
For question 11, I infer the meaning of a word from a sentence from the text. Its easy because I already know the word. I find the nature of fiction makes this task harder. Because I know the word, I see one clear answer and context clue. However, a student unfamiliar with the word might choose the image of the sea as a context clue and choose either of two wrong answers.
Almost half way through the exam and it is the first time I see a text box for an open answer question. I am asked what specific examples in the text suggest about the narrator.
Question 13 part A requires I choose a conclusion about character from details in the first paragraph, and then I must choose a detail that best supports that conclusion for part B. I am back to guessing what the test writers believe is the correct intreptation rather than forming my own based on evidence.
Question 14 has me choose a conclusion about the characterization of the narrator. Again, multiple choice.
Lastly, question 15 asks me to choose which of four statements best explains how a specific metaphor adds to the text. Literary scholars would be out of work if things like metaphor only had one best answer.
With all the push for nonfiction study in ELA classrooms, I am surprised that thus far on the exam seven questions were on reading a nonfiction text and eight questions were on reading fiction.
At this point, I've been at the exam for about forty five minutes. I have no spent time reading the passages presented on the left. I have lost time dealing with distractions in my environment. One of my legs is going numb from sitting in the same position this long.
The next section is about writing. Question 16 asks me to read a group of sentences and then move the underlines to the best location. This question is too easy and very similar to material I saw on the third grade test that required ordering multiple details.
Question 17 Requires me to read a "draft" and pick a new conclusion that uses a specific purpose. This is not about my writing abilities, but my ability to analyze someone else's writing.
Question 18 is an open answer questions. I am asked to read the provided material. The first part is a draft of a pressuasive piece and the second part is notes. I am then asked to turn the notes into the counterarguement to be included in the draft. I am being asked to analyze the writing to find the correct points and to then summarize them. I am not being asked to formulate my own ideas.
Question 19 tells me a student is writing a piece for her school paper on toe fungus. Yes, toe fungus. Anyway, I am asked to replace the two underlines words with a given purpose. Both words are in each answer rather than independent. I narrow the answers down to three choices, but then don't feel very strongly about the rest. I am unsure if its a poor questions of if my brain is starting to shut down.
Question 20 asks me to replace the underlined word in a text given the intended audience of the piece. I have to choose two replacement words. The piece is about music and knowing vocabulary about music is a huge help. I still believe three answers are equally good and would be guessing at the test writer's intentions to disclude one.
I've reached the listening skills section; however, I am not going to listen to the pieces. There are six questions here, three questions each for two presentations.
Question 22 asks me to define a term from the presentation. Question 23 asks why the "rhetorical technique of comparison" was used in the piece. Question 24 asks me to draw a conclusion from the provided details. All three questions are multiple choice.
Question 25 wants me to pick the tone of the centeral idea. Of the four choices provided, two use pretty advanced vocabularly. Question 26 asks me to draw a conclusion about the purpose of certain details in the presentation. And question 27 is two parts. I bet you can guess what they ask at this point. Part A asks me what a specific example proves, and then I choose the best support for my choice in part B.
Finally, I am on the last section of the exam. This section focuses on research skills.
Oh look, question 28 is on one topic I really harped on students: Plagiarism. I'm happy to see this on the exam. I am to read two "original" sources and then a students synthesis of them. Then, I'm to pick the two details (by clicking on them directly in the passage) that are plagiarized. Because the student has no used any form of citation, in my mind, anything from either text is stolen. Now all I have to do is match the information from the report to the sources. This seems a round about way to test this concept, and ultimately, if I mess up my matching (because I'm getting tired of taking this test is one viable reason that might happen), I might get the answer wrong even if I understand plagiarism well.
Question 29 presents a draft of a student paper and a list of sources. I am supposed to read the student paper and then pick two sources that would be helpful to that student. I feel like I'm just matching again. Matching the presented ideas in the student paper to where they show up again in the answer choices.
The last question is a table. I am asked to read three sources and then use the table to mark which sources make each claim. There are four claims. If I read the chart first, then I am just looking for specific ideas when I read and marking them down. I am unsure if this is really testing my ability to use the table, but a similar, but smaller, table was used on the 3rd grade exam.
My overall thoughts of the exam weren't very high. Just as Peter Greene found when he took the PARCC exam, the Smarter Balance exam had some real issues. The exam rewarded good test taking skills as well as rewarding prior knowledge unrelated to the skills and knowledge being tested. Also, the test was almost entirely based on how someone else interpreted texts giving students extremely limited opportunity to show creativity or real critical thinking skills. When a student's own thoughts don't match the exam (as happened to me a few times before I just used my test taking skills to work the test), then the student is left to guess what is best instead of supporting their own thinking.
When I finished, I jumped over to the performance exam and took screen shots of the questions and directions, but didn't analyze anything.