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A Biased Test?

"Taking on the Test'' [May/June], by David Hill, left out some important arguments rebutting the claims of those who still defend the California Basic Education Skills Test (CBEST).

Though the story questioned the academic qualifications of some of those who did not pass the CBEST, many graduates of "elite'' universities have failed it. For example, in the 1991-92 school year, 11 percent of the 749 graduates of the University of California at Berkeley who took the test for the first time did not pass. Is it really plausible that Berkeley graduated more than 75 students who cannot perform at what the state claims is merely a 10th grade level?

The selected questions used in the article might make a reader think the CBEST is quite simple. But is it important that a teacher know about lighthouses, an essential part of one of the two reading questions? If not, and if the two examples are typical, then large portions of the reading test could be obscure to many test-takers. True, educators with wide-ranging knowledge should be valued, but tests rarely examine that knowledge base outside of upper-middle-class, European-American contexts.

The cultural loading of items is very important, as one experiment shows. In the 1970s, two researchers from the Educational Testing Service, which created the CBEST, designed alternate forms for ETS's national teacher licensing exam, the National Teachers Exam. One focused on knowledge apt to be known in the black community (blacks scored higher than whites), and another focused on more contemporary knowledge, rather than the arcane facts found on the NTE (blacks did nearly as well as whites). Though the alternate forms were designed to be as difficult as the original, they were never used. To this day, the balance of items on tests such as the CBEST reduces the likelihood that members of minority groups will pass.

The other reading question cited, the one on fruit juices, is really not about general reading but about logic. Several people with doctorates who read it quickly selected the same wrong answer "B.'' Looking more carefully, the respondents could see why this choice was so distracting. This, too, is typical of tests: the use of tricky items to sort people out.

The two sample math items are not particularly difficult. However, more advanced math was included on the test that so many have failed. The two writing samples are typical of tests that ask people to respond to topics about which they may not care, under strict time pressures. The response to this arbitrary task is then defined as one's writing ability.

Test-defender Ashe's argument that people of color don't pass the test because they have an inferior elementary and secondary education is flawed in two ways. First, it is likely that many who failed the test attended good schools, just as some Berkeley graduates did not pass. Second, students who attend low-quality schools don't often get to college, and still fewer graduate. Those who do earn baccalaureate degrees demonstrate qualities that just might be of value to schools, except many can't pass irrelevant, tricky, and biased tests.

Students, parents, and taxpayers deserve high-quality teachers. But reducing the definition of high quality to the ability to pass a test does not protect or serve the public interest; it merely perpetuates the latest excuse for racial exclusion--that test scores equal merit.

Monty Neill
Associate Director
Cambridge, Mass.

Maybe objectivity was not David Hill's intent, but I was disturbed that he waited until the fifth page of his article to present an analysis and description of the CBEST and some opinions from those in favor of the test. I believe Hill should have presented arguments from both sides early on in his story. The danger of not doing so was that he may have alienated some readers. These readers may have given up on the article with the feeling that your magazine supports his apparent sympathetic position with those who have failed the test.

I, for one, am glad I finished reading it because I gained a more complete understanding of the issue. Hill finally presents some opinions in favor of the test in the latter part of his article. I strongly support Al Shanker's position favoring standards for teachers. As he was quoted in your article: "What can we say of a profession devoted to teaching our young people that does not demand at least a basic competency in reading, writing, and math of its members?''

S. Bruce Immordino
Langhorne, Pa.


David Ruenzel's article "Paradise Lost'' [May/June] points out many of the difficulties kindergarten teachers face as academics are pushed down to their classrooms. Having taught kindergarten for 10 years, I have attended many workshops and seminars in which academics were disguised as fun and play in order to satisfy teachers and administrators who are feeling the push to teach the basics earlier and earlier.

The other great change is in the preschools and nursery schools that feed into kindergarten. When letters, numbers, and words are taught to 3- and 4-year-olds, it becomes a challenge to explain to parents why these skills are not followed up in a way that does not repeat what some children have already experienced at an earlier age.

One difficulty that teachers in independent schools face is the rising age of kindergartners, particularly boys. The common wisdom now is to hold your child back so that he or she will have an advantage over other children in the class. As a result, I had only four children in my class this year who were still 5 years old in October. As the chronological age of students rises and many of my 6-year-olds show an interest in reading, it is more difficult to keep the academics from creeping into my classroom and from affecting all of my students.

John Michaud
Live Oak School
San Francisco, Calif.

Whole Language

I was shocked to read Karen Diegmueller's piece "A Balancing Act'' [May/June]. Whole language has taken hits from all sides, including from teachers. But to see it maligned in the "Research'' section of a teachers' magazine is ghastly.

Does no one know what whole language truly is? Whole language (and instructors who embrace this philosophy) does not divorce itself from phonics. Whole language recognizes that learners take in reading skills through a variety of methods. One of the spokes of the reading umbrella definitely is phonics. The lessons that Laura Grenon, the teacher in the article, provided her students are all whole language. She challenges students with the meaning and then teaches the pieces that make the story go (phonics, semantics, and so on).

The difference between the traditional phonics approach and whole language is not in the belief that phonics is important. The distinction is in the implementation of phonics. As exemplified by Grenon, whole language insists that phonics be integrated into a whole story; literature is the base. Whole language says take the whole piece and break it down into parts, first finding meaning and then making sense of the phonics and other lessons and skills. The traditional phonics approach suggests concepts such as word families. First the small pieces are learned, and then the meaning of the story comes. There is no context for a child to build upon, no web to connect information.

The choice is not whole language or phonics. Teachers who use whole language are not ignoring what has been proven effective; they are building on the idea to enhance the teaching of reading.

Mollie Welsh Kruger
New York, N.Y.

"A Balancing Act'' describes a 1st grade class learning to read through a mixture of basic phonics and whole language. The children identify "dog'' and "off'' as short "o'' sounds. However, the vowel in neither word actually has the sound that phonics identifies as short "o.'' Instead, it is the one we encounter in such words as "saw'' and "all'' and "long'' and has no name. The official phonics short "o'' sound is found in such words as "hot'' and "want'' and the first syllable of "father.''

Perhaps the teacher, the writer, or someone can explain to me how learning "the sound of short 'o' '' could, in any case, conceivably help a child learn to read, since he or she must first be able to recognize the word "dog'' in order to know its vowel sound. Otherwise, she might easily make the mistake of thinking that its "o'' is pronounced like the "o'' in, say, "toga'' or "go.''

And what will happen when the child has dutifully succeeded in memorizing the vowel sound in "off'' and "dog'' as short "o''? When he or she tries to read "pod,'' it will come out "pawed,'' and "sod'' will be "sawed,'' hopelessly jumbling the meaning of whatever he or she is reading.

Are we really trying to teach our schoolchildren to read? Or are we carelessly creating unending confusion in their trusting and retentive young minds?

Helen Andrejevic
New York, N.Y.

The teaching of phonics has drifted in and out of fashion for decades ["The Best of Both Worlds,'' May/June]. There was a time when it was considered more important to teach the "whole child'' than specific subject matter. The "whole word'' method of teaching reading de-emphasized the importance of individual letters and sounds. Now we have whole language methods that do the same thing. But how can we teach "whole'' anything without paying attention to the "parts''?

Beryl Palmer
Redondo Beach, Calif.

Charles Mingo

As a secondary teacher, I empathized with David Ruenzel when he told Chicago principal Charles Mingo that he felt a bit sorry for the high school algebra teacher whose classroom practice Mingo had just discredited in front of a hostile student and her mother ["Mission Impossible,'' April]. I certainly wouldn't want my practice and credibility questioned by my principal in front of students or their parents.

In high school classrooms, we constantly walk the line between chaos and a productive learning environment, and I fear being rendered any more powerless than I already am. Mingo said, "If you're doing what you're supposed to be doing, a situation can be an open book.'' I agree. However, for a situation to be an open book, teachers need to let go of the defensive posture we've developed as magnets for society's blame. We need to know that the hand reaching out toward us is not one that will punch us but one that will support us. We need the security of a supportive administration. And even more, we need the security that grows naturally out of feeling that we're doing the right thing and that people trust that we're trying to do the right thing.

Jennifer Morrison
High School English Teacher
New York, N.Y.

Don't Blame Schools

I read Michael Casserly's commentary "Don't Blame the Kids'' [April] with a mixture of sadness and anger. Casserly begins by citing a recent report that states that one-third of African-American men between the ages of 20 and 29 are in the criminal justice system. He then states, but fails to prove, that "America's schools helped put many of them where they are.''

There is no process in schools that prepares kids for prison. We are not automatons, and schools are not heartless places that chew up and spit out children. We teach children, day by day, with the goal of helping them succeed. A child is not recommended for retention, suspension, or expulsion lightheartedly, or with malice or indifference, but only after much soul-searching and only after other remedies have been tried.

Casserly argues that "by throwing out unruly children, we focus on the wrong set of people.'' He goes on to point out that adults, not kids, make guns, make and sell harmful substances and pornography, glorify violence, and so on. It is on these bad actors that we should be focusing, he asserts. Are not the men and women in the criminal justice system also adults and presumably responsible for their actions?

Our schools are set up to prepare children to succeed in an increasingly complex society. School rules mirror those of that society. Children who will not follow those rules must face consequences for their actions, just as they do in society. To say that schools are to blame for putting men and women into prison defies logic. There is much we can and should do to increase parental involvement in schools, to help more children succeed in school, and to create opportunities for those who do get an education. But these efforts should not be sidetracked by unfounded and potentially divisive assertions such as those made by Casserly.

Donald Ian Delver
Rolling Hills, Calif.

At the end of Michael Casserly's essay, in the list of things we need to do, I wish he had suggested that we make classes smaller. There are all sorts of "researchers'' who claim that there is no proof that class size matters, but common sense should tell us that a teacher needs to be able to make eye contact with every child he or she teaches. Surely a bit of attention from the teacher would help prevent some of the behaviors that destroy the class atmosphere.

Doris Blough
Rock Hill, S.C.

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