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How to Read Shakespeare or Bus Schedules

By Sandra Stotsky — December 07, 2004 4 min read
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The study of American literature by name is not required in about half the states, and the two-word phrase is barely mentioned in many others.

Many educators have rung alarm bells about the effects of the No Child Left Behind Act’s testing requirements on the classroom curriculum. They fear these are narrowing the curriculum. They claim teachers are spending most of their time preparing students to pass state tests in reading and mathematics. If reading tests do influence what is taught, the high school literature curriculum may well become the first nationwide casualty of state testing. To judge from test blueprints for English/reading in the 50 states, most state tests at the high school level imply that students should learn how to read a bus schedule, not “Julius Caesar,” in their English classes. But the emphasis on informational and practical reading doesn’t stem from the federal legislation. It can be traced in large part to the very source used for designing state tests in the English language arts and reading: the states’ high school standards.

Most states provide absolutely no content-rich literature standards and/or selective reading lists to outline the substantive content of the high school English curriculum. Indeed, the study of American literature by name is not required in about half the states, and the two-word phrase is barely mentioned in many others. Few states offer sample titles or authors to suggest the level and the literary quality parents should expect in their high schools’ English classes. Few try to clarify the meaning of the contentless literature standards they do provide with descriptions of classroom activities.

Equally problematic are the unteachable literature standards that clutter most state standards documents—standards that cannot be taught by normal teachers to normal secondary students, no matter how long the school day or school year. Here are a few of the many pretentious examples that can be found in them: “Draw on a broad base of knowledge about the themes, ideas, and insights found in classical literature while reading, interpreting, and reflecting on contemporary texts” (Wisconsin); explain the “significance of literature and its contributions to various cultures” (Kansas); “discuss, analyze, and evaluate how characters deal with the diversity of human experience and conflict” (Connecticut); “demonstrate an understanding of the relationship among perception, thought, and language” (Maine); “explain the implication of the text for the reader and/or society” (Maryland); “analyze how cultures interact with one another in literature and other texts, and describe the consequences of the interaction as it relates to our common heritage” (Michigan); and—my favorite—“analyze and evaluate the great literary works from a variety of cultures to determine their contribution to the understanding of self, others, and the world” (Washington).

If I were an English teacher in these states, I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to begin to craft a lesson to address such standards, especially when no examples of classroom activities ever accompany them. And if I were a test-maker, I would be clueless about what exactly is expected at the end of a lesson, unit, semester, or grade. Forget about equal expectations in literature curricula across a state. It is much safer to emphasize informational and practical reading on a state test than to try to figure out what is being taught in the English class.

The preponderance of informational and practical readings on state high school tests may also reflect a fear of failing a high number of students. Many educators seem to believe that practical passages are more relevant to students presumed to be in danger of failing these tests, and that all students should be tested on them. The problem here is that high school English teachers expect, and are expected, to teach students how to do close and careful reading chiefly through literary texts. That is what they learn to use as English majors, not science or mathematics textbooks, trade manuals, instructions for assembling computers, post office forms, or campaign literature.

The high school literature curriculum may ultimately vanish altogether under the pressure generated by the content of most current state English/reading tests.

We have no evidence yet on what the actual effects of state reading tests have been on the high school English classes. We do have evidence from a report released in June of this year by the National Endowment for the Arts of a massive and accelerating decline in adult literary reading in this country in the past 20 years, with the steepest decline in the youngest age group (18 to 24).

Paradoxically, state tests may be the only mechanism for assuring the continuing existence of a rich and demanding high school literature curriculum for all students, as well as a society that enjoys reading literature. But only if states with empty, uninterpretable, and/or unteachable literature standards replace them with appropriate content-rich standards designed by experienced English teachers, and then assess them on literature tests, not reading tests whose content should continue to be taught by teachers in other subjects.

Otherwise, the high school literature curriculum may ultimately vanish altogether under the pressure generated by the content of most current state English/reading tests.

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