June 7, 2013 5:19 pm

NPE Stories: Michelle Strater Gunderson on standardized testing

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By Michelle Strater Gunderson

I remember watching my fourth grade students at Goudy Elementary (Uptown, Chicago) take the state reading test the year my twin daughters were also in fourth grade. I knew that Kate and Sarah were going to score off the charts on this test. Were my daughters brilliant? No — they were middle class, spoke English at home, were read to constantly, self-confident, well fed, and loved.

Here’s what was on the Illinois fourth grade test in 1997. First there was a long passage to read about going to Starved Rock State Park on a hike. Score! As a family, we love visiting state parks and go to Starved Rock often to hike and escape city life. The next long passage was one of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s diary entries. Bingo! My girls read every word Laura Ingalls Wilder ever published, and we had visited a mid- 19th century farm re-enactment the summer before.

It was if the test was written for my daughters. And guess what? It was.

Reading research tells us that one of the most important indicators of reading comprehension ability is a student’s background knowledge and how they directly connect to a text. My daughters lived and breathed the experiences on the Illinois reading assessment — of course they were going to score through the roof.

Think about the children who I taught at Goudy School. Most of the students did not speak English at home, I can bet that none had been to a state park, and as much as I wanted to teach them everything about life in the United States, somehow we didn’t get to mid-19th century farm life that year. There was absolutely no background knowledge for them to tap into in these reading passages.

In addition, the test days at our school were fraught with anxiety. Everything depended on those tests — our schools’ ranking compared to others in the state; whether or not 3rd, 6th or 8th graders passed; and teachers’ professional reputations. You could cut the tension with a knife. We all knew that we were undertaking a futile exercise.

Good thing I’d eaten a good breakfast. Good thing I always showed up with graham crackers and juice for kids who hadn’t. Good thing that I loved my students dearly, and that they left Room 301 with a sense of confident purpose and love for learning. No thanks to the Illinois State Achievement Tests.