How the Newest High-Stakes Tests Are Stealing the Joy of Reading from Our Kids

Even beautiful pieces of literature become lifeless vehicles to teach dry, decontextualized skills.

Editor's note: As implementation of the Common Core State Standards continues nationwide, teachers are increasingly speaking out about how these standards, and the assessments that come along with them, are impacting their students. In 13 states this spring, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (or PARCC) standardized test will be deployed to measure student mastery of the Common Core curriculum; already, many educators have made their concerns known. Katie Osgood, a special education teacher in Chicago, is joining their ranks with this powerful piece about what, precisely, we steal from students when we ask them to spend their days focused on test-prep alone.

My school is drowning under the ridiculous Common Core Standards. Everything I know to do to inspire my students is forbidden. Instead, we are forced to deliver truly horrible curriculum in developmentally inappropriate ways, with pacing charts that move so fast all our heads are spinning. My students with special needs are shutting down, acting out or just giving up entirely. Sometimes I hear them whisper, "I hate school"— and they are right to think that. All the teachers are upset, and every time we ask "Why? Why are you making us do this?" the answer is always the same: PARCC is coming.

Today I read a piece about PARCC on Diane Ravitch's blog titled, Bob Shepherd: Why PARCC Testing is Meaningless and Useless, which hit on something I don't feel like we've been talking about enough. Mr. Shepherd complains about how PARCC and the Common Core are truly warping what reading means. He says, "these are tests of literature that for the most part skip over the literature, tests of the reading of informative texts that for the most part skip over the content of those texts." I haven't heard many people complain about our skill-based reading instruction that has been in vogue since before CCSS, but now under the new standards it's bad literacy on speed. We are teaching reading without enjoying words, or thoughts, or the context that created the stories we read. Even when we choose beautiful pieces of literature, they become lifeless vehicles to teach a dry, decontextualized skill.

For the past two weeks, my co-teacher and I were teaching off the standard that asks our fifth graders to compare and contrast two pieces of literature from the same genre. In my inclusion classroom, that looks like reading two myths without any teaching around what myths are, about Ancient Greece, about how the myths point to our own humanity. No, we are told to have the kids create a Venn diagram of the two texts and then practice writing a constructed response. The kids have no idea who Zeus or Hera are. They know nothing about the way myths were used to explain religion and nature to an ancient people. There is no chance to connect these ancient stories to the kids' own lives. I hear the kids mutter, "Why are these such funny names?" But because we are on a strict pacing guide, and because the teaching of Greek Mythology is not in the standard, we simply moved on. This week we're on to comparing poems. In order to practice more constructed responses. To get ready for PARCC.

I cannot believe how we are warping the experience of reading for these children. Sometimes we are told to do a "close read" of stirring passages about the Underground Railroad for the sole purpose of pulling out the main idea and supporting details. We don't actually talk about the Underground Railroad, letting the horror of slavery sink in. No, it's simply about getting the skill, so the kids can demonstrate the same skill on the dreaded test. What a ridiculous disservice. I still remember my fourth-grade teacher reading us a novel on Harriet Tubman and how that story was one of my first understandings of true injustice. We were inspired to create art projects, to write poetry, to pull out further texts on slavery from our library. We had class discussions. We wrote letters. We felt the text come alive. Our kids are not getting anything remotely like that experience—because of PARCC.

To make things worse, I teach at an all African-American school in a high-poverty neighborhood on Chicago's southside. Killing the love of reading before it starts for my students is nothing short of criminal. But because of the high-stakes nature of PARCC, knowing that schools just blocks away have been closed for their poor test scores, our school is in a sickening frenzy to raise our test scores by any means necessary. Everything revolves around this test. And my students, who so desperately need safe, supportive, relevant, and engaging learning environments, instead are given high-pressured, standardized, test-prep CCRAP.

This type of readicide is not new; schools under high-stakes accountability have been forced into this twisted form of reading instruction for many years. But things are getting worse, so much worse. Thanks to PARCC.

Any chance that kids get to become enthralled in a story, to become spellbound by a fictional world, to be pulled into the past through powerful prose, is done through teachers secretly stealing time for that wonderment. It is not in the standards. It won't be on the test. And it's definitely not in PARCC.

Katie Osgood is a teacher who has taught ESL in Japan, special ed in an inner-city Chicago Public School, and worked with kids with severe emotional/behavioral disorders on an inpatient psych unit in Chicago.

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