Our newest test site is 4th grade
Within a few weeks, Nevada’s 31,000 fourth-graders will have taken the Nevada State Proficiency in Writing test. There are no exemptions allowed under state or federal law. None. A mere learning disability doesn’t cut it. Speaking little or no English is no excuse either. Furthermore, it is only the third of four standardized tests required of all fourth-graders this year.
For this test, 9- and 10-year-olds write short essays. At least two scorers will read each piece and will decide whether it is sufficiently proficient. What exactly does proficient mean to fourth-grade writers?
Nevada’s fourth-grade writing is evaluated using the analytical traits model developed in the early 1980s in cooperation with Northwest Regional Education Laboratories as a teacher- and student-friendly guide to improve writing instruction. Each piece of fourth-grade writing will be judged on the following four traits.
– Ideas: Is the writing clear, with enough details?
– Organization: Is there a clear beginning, middle and end? Are there strong transitions?
– Voice: Does the paper sound like the writer really understands and means what he/she is saying?
– Conventions: Does the paper have correct capital letters, punctuation, grammar and spelling?
Each trait is scored on a five-point scale, with one being the lowest and five as the highest. Children need a score of three to pass. Under a brand-new accountability policy, the individual scores will be added into one score. A paper requires at least 12 points to be considered proficient. Eighth-graders, by the way, have virtually the same passing criteria on essentially the same test, and they’ve had four more years of instruction. The expectation is the same, however, 100 percent proficiency.
The fact that Nevada uses the analytical traits model to assess and diagnose fourth-graders’ writing has been a good thing. Until now. As a benchmark, given in the fall, it makes sense. With the information it provides, teachers are able to focus lessons and beginning writers can see precisely where they need to improve.
It is also an example of how really good things can be used for very bad purposes, for purposes they were never intended. What was a useful instructional tool has become yet another weapon against public schools and the children they serve. Is there even a sport that demands such proficiency from beginners? I don’t think so.
With the passage of Nevada’s SB1 – the piece of legislation that implemented No Child Left Behind (NCLB) – our very effective fall writing assessment was moved to early in the spring semester – January or February – because the feds said it must be included in the Adequate Yearly Progress data. Evidently, the diagnostic and instructional function is less important than its accountability and reporting function. That’s just one more problem with NCLB: It continues to be more concerned with testing and labeling than teaching.
Students with limited English skills may have directions read and explained to them. In English. They may also receive some extra time, but hardly the seven to 12 years that research says it takes students to become proficient writers, speakers and readers in English. Moreover, what about the child who just arrived from Nicaragua or Norway last week? NCLB says, “Test ’em.”
Is it valid to test student writers who are not fluent English speakers? Is it fair? Is it a good use of instructional time? No one has been able to convince me that testing them is anything more than one additional way in which NCLB stacks the deck against children with limited English and the schools that educate them. Schools with a high percentage of English as a second language (ESL) families will continue to look bad even when their children make substantial gains. They can never look as good as schools with low second-language populations. Never. No matter how high our expectations are, there are some things that cannot be rushed; language acquisition is one of them. Rather than closing the achievement gap, No Child Left Behind actually perpetuates it.
Here are a few more troubling thoughts. By 2005-06, fully one-half of each Nevada elementary school’s Adequate Yearly Progress Report will rest in the hands of 9- and 10-year-olds. Half. Four tests are part of that data, and fourth-grade takes two of them.
Furthermore, of the 17 state, federal or district tests students will take during their public school careers, four will happen in fourth grade. No grade is tested more often. Given that each test takes several days to administer, students lose weeks of instructional time to testing, most of which does little to inform instruction.
Teachers used to be able to tell fourth-grade students not to worry. “I know this is hard,” we’d say. “But it’s important, so just do your best. Nobody expects you know everything yet.” What can we say now and expect them to believe us?
Lorie Schaefer is a reading specialist at Seeliger School. Contact her by writing to email@example.com