Testing Absurdities, Reading Worries and Robo-Grading

Email a Friend

Week 2 of standardized testing begins in the New York City public schools -- and so, it seems, does another week of testing wackiness.

The English Language Arts exam week ended on Friday with the decision by the state education commissioner, John B. King Jr., to scrap the answers to an absurd question -- literally and otherwise -- about a pineapple and a hare that had stymied eighth-grade test takers.

The six answers related to the reading passage will not be graded, Dr. King said, a relief to many eighth graders, who had left the test with a new catch phrase -- "Pineapples don't have sleeves" -- and contempt for the mandatory tests that are used for everything from student promotion to school and teacher evaluations.

Many adults, too, were fired up about the test, with Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of Public School 321 William Penn in Park Slope, Brooklyn, writing to Dr. King to express her concerns about the E.L.A. exams in general, but particularly those for fifth graders.

"Although there are always issues with selected questions, generally it is only one or two per test that the assistant principals and I can’t quite agree on," she wrote. "I am genuinely shocked that with the increased importance of state testing, there are so many more flawed questions than ever before." You can find the letter on Ed Notes Online.

If there is one possible winner out of all this, it is probably Daniel Pinkwater, author of the story from which the offending passage was derived. Mr. Pinkwater was the recipient of some angry e-mails, a phone call and Facebook attention from students, as well as a barrage of media interviews.

According to The New York Times, Mr. Pinkwater, who is the author of some 80 works for children and young adults, was "tickled to death by the children's reaction."

“Some kids took me to task; the phrase sellout appeared on my screen,” he said, adding that he had been paid for the right to his excerpt and never looked back to see what had been done with it. “Others were gentler about it.”

The Times article goes on to say:

Mr. Pinkwater (whose wife, Jill, is a former college remedial reading teacher) said he considered himself a nonsense writer, and the test-makers had taken his story far too seriously. “Well give me a break,” he said. “It’s a nonsense story and there isn’t an option for a nonsense answer.”

The Daily News ran a piece written by Mr. Pinkwater himself, who took full credit for cashing in on his short story:

All authors who are not Stephen King will sell permission to allow excerpts from their books to have all the pleasure edited out of them and used this way. You’d do the same thing if you were a writer, and didn’t know where your next pineapple was coming from.

He went on to say:

Well, I accepted money from sleazy people for what turns out to be a sleazy thing. But that is good too! That’s what a lot of celebrities do. Do I want another 15 minutes? Nah. One is plenty.

There was still more on testing in the newspapers this weekend, including a poignant Op-Ed article in The Times on Sunday by Claire Needell Hollander. Ms. Hollander, who was identified as "an English teacher at a public middle school in Manhattan," writes of her fear that literature will be squeezed out of curriculums to make way for writing that is more likely to show up on standardized exams. She wrote:

We cannot enrich the minds of our students by testing them on texts that purposely ignore their hearts. By doing so, we are withholding from our neediest students any reason to read at all. We are teaching them that words do not dazzle but confound. We may succeed in raising test scores by relying on these methods, but we will fail to teach them that reading can be transformative and that it belongs to them.

But if racing pineapples and the death of literature are not enough absurdity for you, Michael Winerip's On Education column on Monday in The New York Times might stamp your ticket.

Mr. Winerip writes about robo-grading, particularly the computer scoring of essays.

The automated reader developed by the Educational Testing Service, e-Rater, can grade 16,000 essays in 20 seconds, according to David Williamson, a research director for E.T.S., which develops and administers 50 million tests a year, including the SAT.

And a study by Mark Shermis, dean of the College of Education at the University of Akron, declared the grading not only fast, but also accurate, "with the software in some cases proving to be more reliable" that human grading, according to a University of Akron news release.

Mr. Winerip asks:

Is this the end? Are Robo-Readers destined to inherit the earth?

Les Perelman, a director of writing at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says no.

Mr. Perelman tested the e-Rater and found that "the automated reader can be easily gamed, is vulnerable to test prep, sets a very limited and rigid standard for what good writing is, and will pressure teachers to dumb down writing instruction."

You have to read the column to find out the many ways that the e-Rater misreads good writing. The examples are delicious -- and pitiful. But to reveal one issue identified by Mr. Perelman:

The e-Rater’s biggest problem, he says, is that it can’t identify truth. He tells students not to waste time worrying about whether their facts are accurate, since pretty much any fact will do as long as it is incorporated into a well-structured sentence. “E-Rater doesn’t care if you say the War of 1812 started in 1945,” he said.

Give E.T.S. credit for allowing Mr. Perelman to conduct his testing. Two other major testing services, Vantage Learning and Pearson -- developer of the offending English Language Arts exam -- said no.

In nontesting news, city officials said they intended to fire the principal of P.S. 184 Shuang Wen School in Chinatown, a dual-language program that has come under fire for a variety of alleged offenses. As Gotham Schools reported on Friday, an investigation found that the school's principal, Ling Ling Chou, had "falsified attendance data and accepted money from a nonprofit hired to administer after school language lessons."

The Department of Education will move to fire Ling Ling Chou, who was removed from the school in September while as many as 16 different investigations were underway.

According to the report, she frequently faked numbers when reporting information about the school to the city and the United States Department of Education, including student attendance records and the length of the school day. The report does not conflict with a different report released last year by the special commissioner of investigations, which found that Chou and other staffers committed multiple improprieties, but did not outright steal public money.

Chancellor Dennis M. Walcott released a statement about the matter:

“For years, Principal Chou engaged in dishonest behavior, unbeknownst to her students and school community. Principal Chou’s conduct has failed to meet the standard we set for our principals, and I am filing charges to terminate her employment.”

In case you missed it last week, Time magazine released its annual list of 100 most influential people in the world and included Cami Anderson, who heads the Newark school system, and Salman Khan, founder of the Khan Academy for online learning.

And, finally, back to English language arts -- the English language experienced a significant "moment" last week when the Associated Press released new rules about the use of the word "hopefully."

The editors of the Associated Press relented and gave its blessing to the use of the word "hopefully" to mean "it's hoped, we hope" -- the way that most people have been using it, rather than its traditional meaning of "full of hope." Salon wrote about the decision, which will be widely discussed by linguists and grammarians for a while -- and will elicit both relief and dread in caretakers of the language.

We wonder how the robo-graders will see it.

Besides a lot of last-minute prepping for the standardized math exams that begin on Tuesday for third through eighth graders, here is some of what's going on in education on Monday:

At 2:30 p.m., Mr. Walcott makes a visit to Manhattan Comprehensive Night and Day High School at 240 Second Avenue, at 15th Street, to congratulate students and staff on energy conservation and recycling, in honor of Earth Day.

And parents at Public School 29 John M. Harrigan in Cobble Hill, Brooklyn, are up in arms about asbestos abatement work being done at the school on Henry Street. Some are planning a protest Monday evening.