Wednesday, January 21, 2009

23: testing season

So if the goal is to design a full K-12 curriculum that provides equal amounts of Education (as if Education were sugar, measured by spoons) to all children, we need standardized tests to prove that such is what is being done, and give us some sort of idea as to whether we ARE serving all children equally.

I understand that. It's reasonable. But then it is also reasonable to adjust the test to fit the child, because who the child is and where they are from affect what they can do at this point in time.

Read that sentence again. I think it's true, but it should also make you very nervous.

Let me explain why.

You can check out examples of the current state test in New York at the website. There's a lot to learn, but for now just note that eighth grade has a so-called listening part of the test (I insist on doing both ear-listen and eye-listen in the classroom, just to normalize things.) During this part of the test students are to pay attention and take notes while the teacher reads an approximately 300-400 word piece (say a page and a half.) They then answer questions about that piece using their notes to form essays. They have, variously, one to two hours, depending on their individual needs.

Now hearing children can passively listen while actively writing. The two activities don't contradict. But looking is an active activity. It's possible to both look and write simultaneously, but very difficult, and frustrating. So Deaf children, who have to look at an A.S.L. interpreter, who often has to struggle to keep up with the voice of an unfamiliar hearing person while translating, on the spot, a piece they probably haven't had access to prior to the test (as a teacher, I certainly didn't)–Deaf children in this position are at a serious disadvantage.

This year, we added a small modification to the test, as an experimental equalizer. What if we permitted students to take notes by adding a few seconds' pause between paragraphs?

A simple modification, but one with impressive results. Students reported taking notes for the first time. Freed from being tied to the high-speed signs of a struggling interpreter, and able to look down and take notes thanks to the pause, many students reported feeling able to compete on a more equivalent playing field to that of their hearing peers.

It seems really simple, and it's surprising nobody's thought of it before. The passage has to be read two or three times, depending on the student; simply doing this at least one of those times gives students far more confidence.

So in that case, adjusting the test? A good idea.

But what about other ways? What about providing the test questions and pieces in A.S.L.? This is an option on many students' I.E.P.'s. I feel it's a necessary evil, but it's an option that only works with a system in place to evaluate the student's use of language. The goal is to test the student's comprehension - of English! It's a useless test if the teacher's support is provided in a way that takes away from an accurate measurement of that comprehension. There are, however, a huge range of students, ages, backgrounds, and linguistic competency. It doesn't make sense to hold back a trilingual student because their knowledge of three languages is going to affect them in a different way from a kid who grows up with one. As an English teacher, I want my kids to do well on these tests, but I also want them to be honest. I want the test to be honest, too.

More importantly, who is really qualified to assess any of this? A sensitive hearing person could perform some of the observations that lead to these thoughts, but unless the person is deaf themselves - or maybe has been on both sides of the fence - to think of everything is impossible. This is one reason I believe in the kind of school we are building. On the one hand the Deaf population is currently shrinking. On the other, Deaf kids still need Deaf adults teaching in schools and in the administration of the school. Solve the problem by aiming for a 50-50 ratio - and you not only satisfy the Deaf students' needs, you also give the hearing student the benefits of a much wider world... and both kinds of students enrich each other.

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