Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Test Season, Continued

In a town built around a coal mine, which is most likely to be true?

a) All women work in the mine.
b) Most men work in the mine.
c) The mine never lays people off.
d) The mine is the safest place to work.

This question showed up on CMS's third grade social studies field test the other month. It was a solid question, said CMS testing director Chris Cobitz, and would have made it to the final test if it hadn't been made public as part of the ongoing debate over the tests.

I'm glad to see the question "outed." One of the problems I have with standardized tests is the mystery that surrounds them. The numbers they create are sliced and diced and published and compared and used to determine the fate of children, teachers and schools. But very rarely do discussions focus on the questions that elicit the bubble patterns that are turned into these numbers. This question, this escaped artifact of a twentieth-century obsession, offers a chance to do that.

At first glance, it makes some sense. Few CMS third graders have any experience with coal mines, since there aren't any here in Charlotte – or in North Carolina for that matter (in West Virginia, on the other hand, any child of any age would know the answer in a heartbeat). Anything our third graders know about coal mining, they've probably learned in school, although in my mind they're as likely – if not more likely – to have learned it from a novel or a first-grade picture book than from third grade social studies. You can imagine how a child might think the question through.

But of course you don't actually have to know anything about economics or coal mines or American communities to answer the question correctly. All three of the wrong answers involve absolute statements: "all," "never," and "safest." The correct answer -- "most men" -- is clearly the one best suited to a guess, to the question "which is most likely to be true?"

Getting the answer that way definitely requires reasoning, but I don't think it has anything to do with social studies.

The question got me thinking about last year, and Parker's third grade social studies work.

Parker's third-grade teacher, Terry Carter, happened to be the highest-paid elementary school teacher in CMS. She was paid the old-fashioned way, so she reached that lofty peak by amassing more than 30 years of experience, two masters' degrees and National Board certification. She gained a little extra by teaching in a high-poverty school with a pilot bonus plan.

She was worth every penny – for reasons that had nothing to do with testing.

For Parker, the most meaningful part of social studies class involved heroes. The North Carolina Standard Course of Study Third Grade Social Studies Competency Goal 7 calls for students to "analyze the role of real and fictional heroes in shaping the culture of communities." Ms. Carter put her own twist on that assignment.

Together, the students learned about many different kinds of heroes: explorers, doctors, soldiers, caregivers, political leaders, etc. Then, for Black History Month, Ms. Carter gave them a list of African Americans and told them to pick one for a research paper. One of the questions they had to answer was whether or not the person they had chosen was a hero.

Like many third grade boys, Parker was obsessed with battles and warfare. He also hated the idea of slavery. So the figure that caught his eye was Nat Turner, the prophetic Virginia slave who in 1831 led the deadliest slave revolt in American history.

I was a little surprised to see Nat Turner turn up on a list of third grade research topics. But Ms. Carter had put him there deliberately. "I wanted them to think," she later told me.

At first Parker was excited by the idea of Nat Turner and his rebellion. But as he began to learn more about what really happened on those bloody August days, he grew less enthusiastic. Turner and his rebels had a goal that he wholeheartedly embraced -- ending slavery. But they had killed a lot of innocent people. Was Nat Turner a hero?

Parker talked about this question a lot, turning fact, ideal and contradiction over and over in his mind. We had several discussions about it at home. The kids in his class debated it, and ended up divided. Some thought Turner was a hero. Others didn't.

Near the end of the year, Parker wrote a poem.

Life and Death

Death, blood, killing, Nat Turner
I see a field of people
for a drop of water.

These images of death
make me sad
make me angry
frustrate me.

I want to think he's a hero
he did some heroic things
like free slaves
I think he killed too many people
innocent people.

I see a field of people
for a drop of water.
Nat Turner a cold blooded killer.

We spend enough time testing. I want my son doing more projects like this.

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