January 11, 2017
The Poet vs. The Standardized Test
by Ryan Harrington
Poetry, to the middle school mind, can be an awfully daunting subject. Standardized tests, to that same young mind, can be an awfully daunting way to measure a student’s competence in that subject — especially with the anxiety-enducing threat of a stain on their permanent record looming over every Scantron bubble. But surely an ambitious student who knew their stuff could answer a few multiple-choice questions about a sample poem, right?
Let’s raise the stakes a bit. Certainly the poet behind that sample poem could answer a few multiple-choice questions about it… Right?
Poet, novelist, and education consultant Sara Holbrook recently had a chance to answer this very question when she learned that a couple of her poems had appeared on the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) at the eighth-grade level in 2013, and the seventh-grade level in 2014. Her response is that many of the questions about her poems were unanswerable.
She begins by lamenting that her poem “A Real Case” ever made it on the test. It’s a poem about anxiety and self-doubt — not exactly the idyll test-takers might need in that panicked moment.
In regard to her poem “Midnight,” she was alarmed to learn that the reproduction of that poem in the test booklet did not include a stanza break that one of the test’s questions asked about. To boot, she says she only put that stanza break in the original poem because that’s where she pauses when she reads aloud, not to “contrast the speaker’s feelings about weekends and Mondays,” or any of the other multiple choice answers. Of course, no one had ever checked with her about her intentions for the poem. As she says,
These test questions were just made up, and tragically, incomprehensibly, kids’ futures and the evaluations of their teachers will be based on their ability to guess the so-called correct answer to made up questions. Then I went online and searched Holbrook/MIDNIGHT/Texas and the results were terrifying. Dozens of districts, all dissecting this poem based on poorly formatted test prep materials.
Perhaps the architects of these proficiency tests aim to reveal to students the intellectually fecund problem of authorial intention and the unstable nature of the literary utterance, but that’s not one of the multiple choices.
Follow the above link to Holbrook’s response to reading her poems as test materials, and her annotations of these most vexing questions for middle schoolers.
Ryan Harrington is an editor at Melville House.