A few weeks ago my friend's 8-year-old came home all excited, waving a letter from school about a test called the Scholastic Reading Inventory.
Not only did the little boy have test results showing he'd scored well above the third-grade level (no surprise to anyone who knows this avid reader), he also had a list of recommended books. Number one on the list: Arctic Dreams. Number two: A Clockwork Orange.
A Clockwork Orange?
His mom gently took the list away and scanned the titles before explaining that she would not be getting a dystopian novel about ultraviolence for her third-grader (or, for that matter, most of the other recommended books, including Guns of August, Left for Dead, and Kafka's Metamorphosis). Then she called her son's school, Shorewood Elementary, to ask what was going on.
Since 2008, the Madison Metropolitan School District has been administering the Scholastic Reading Inventory - a computerized, multiple-choice test it purchased from the Scholastic company. The SRI measures vocabulary and comprehension.
"Students can also pick topics of interest - like animals, or historical fiction," says Beth Tarras, the instructional resource teacher at Shorewood.
Based on students' expressed interests and their score, the computer spits out a list of books "in your child's reading range that may be of interest to him/her," as the letter to my friend put it.
Or, in this case, a bunch of totally inappropriate titles no teacher or school librarian in her right mind would ever suggest for a third-grader.
When my friend told me this story, it struck me partly because of what it says about the pre-purchased "assessment tools" that are so much in vogue in schools these days.
More and more, standardized tests are driving education. Whether it is the Obama administration's Race to the Top program, which led our state to pass a law tying teacher valuations to test scores, or the constant calls for "accountability" and "evaluation" (which generally boil down to more standardized testing), or meetings I've attended where parents fret about our local school's reading scores.
Amid all the testing hype, it's worth remembering that the tests themselves have some serious limitations.
When my friend called Shorewood, she found Beth Tarras to be friendly and helpful. Tarras was very willing to meet with her and figure out other ways to find books that would interest her son, including consulting with the advanced readers in the school's fourth and fifth grades.
This is the first year the school has tried using the SRI for kids as young as second and third grade. My friend's little boy's "Lexile" score (the term is a registered trademark) of 1317 put him somewhere in the middle of what the Scholastic company has determined to be a 12th-grade reading level. (A proficient third-grade reader, Tarras explains, should score between 500 and 800).
"Clearly he is a very good reader," says Tarras. "We are not looking for books to challenge him so much as keep him interested. But should we be giving him 12th-grade texts? No."
Tarras and others at the school seem to get my friend's son - a particularly bright boy with a voracious appetite for all kinds of information. They are, in short, well equipped to teach him without using the SRI. But the district bought the program, and they are using it. And that worries my friend: "What about the really nice mother from China who lives near us, who might not know what A Clockwork Orange is and run out and get it for her child?"
Tarras appreciates hearing those concerns, which she says "shed more light on the problems with the pre-purchased program."
According to a New York Times Magazine story on education reform, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is asking states to mandate "data systems" for tracking student performance in all grades, "which is a euphemism for the kind of full-bore testing regime that makes many parents and children cringe but that the reformers argue is necessary for any serious attempt to track not only student progress but teacher effectiveness."
Some teachers adamantly disagree. David Wasserman, who is helping to start a green charter school in Madison, flat out refused to follow the district's mandate for administering the SRI test.
"They wanted us to give it four times a year.... Forget it," he says. "I can understand doing it twice - at the beginning and end of the year." But he says the tests are not always accurate, and he was too busy teaching his students to keep stopping to evaluate them.
Both Tarras and Wasserman describe the SRI as a "useful tool" when combined with other evaluation tools, including good old human teachers.
The other thing to remember about tests is how little new information they actually produce. According to the UW's Michael Apple, parent education levels and zip codes can accurately predict children's test scores.
If a computer fed a bunch of zip codes and education statistics can do as much as the SRI, maybe we ought to give kids a break from these tests, and instead focus the district's resources on more support for reading groups, teacher time and terrific school librarians.
Ruth Conniff is the political editor of The Progressive.