“Hamlet” or “ELA Test Prep 101”? Today’s teachers often have to decide whether they will teach works of literature or test prep materials. Increasingly, test prep is winning.
Claire Needell Hollander is a middle school reading enrichment teacher in New York City. Of Mice and Men, Sounder, The Red Pony, “A Raisin in the Sun,” Lord of the Flies, The Catcher in the Rye, “Romeo and Juliet” and “Macbeth” are just a few of the classic works of literature she has taught her classes in recent years. As a result of their exposure to these important books, Hollander’s students have experienced significant educational transformations. For example, she describes witnessing one student’s “historical perspective broadening” and “sense of his own country deepening” as he read “The Grapes of Wrath”. Additionally, Hollander writes that “year after year, ex-students have visited and told me how prepared they felt in their freshman year as a result of the classes.” And yet, Hollander has a big problem: in today’s data driven assessment culture, how do you measure this kind of impact?
In her opinion piece Teach the Books, Touch the Heart for the New York Times, Hollander describes her struggle to preserve the use of classic literature in her classes due to increasing pressure from administrators to prove their effectiveness on raising student test scores. She writes,
As student test scores have become the dominant means of evaluating schools, I have been asked to calculate my reading enrichment program’s impact on those scores. I found that some students made gains of over 100 points on the statewide English Language Arts test, while other students in the same group had flat or negative results. In other words, my students’ test scores did not reliably indicate that reading classic literature added value.
As a result of this finding, Hollander had to cut two of the three classes to which she teaches classic literature, replacing them instead with a “test-preparation tutorial program.” Now, only the highest-scoring students are allowed to keep taking her enrichment class and are the only ones in the school being exposed to high-quality texts with depth and substance. The rest of the students are given “watered-down news articles or biographies, bastardized novels, memos or brochures — passages chosen not for emotional punch but for textual complexity.”
This scenario is illustrative of one of the most outrageous and deeply unfortunate consequences of the data-driven accountability movement that has consumed our education system in the past decade. It has become increasingly common for mediocre, contrived test-prep materials to be seen as preferable to the works of Shakespeare and Steinbeck because such works are more efficient vehicles for teaching to state tests. This is not only absurd, it is unnecessary, and is likely doing more harm than good. At Common Core, we encourage all policymakers, educational leaders, and teachers to evade this regrettable outcome and fight to preserve literature’s purpose and place in schools.