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Should State Tests Require Students to Advocate for Specific Education Policies?: NY's ELA Test on Teach for America

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A Voice Cries Out reports that this year's high school ELA retest required students to complete the following task:

Today’s ’situation’ told students that they were in a leadership team who has been debating ‘whether leaders should have experience in their chosen fields.’ They were instructed to write ‘a position paper in which you argue that inexperienced people can provide leadership.

They weren’t even given a choice about which position to take.

They then had to listen to a speech by-you guessed it-Wendy Kopp, about why she started Teach For America. In the speech, Kopp talks about how her lack of experience served to her advantage when creating Teach For America. In the speech she explains that TFA teachers, “challenge the conventional wisdom” that schools are limited in what they can do to ‘overcome the challenges of poverty and the lack of student motivation and parental involvement that is perceived.”


This takes us back to the social justice debate, in which we discussed how schools should and shouldn't deal with contentious issues in the classroom.

So is this fair game for a state test? Those who have pointed out schools' trespasses on social and political issues are generally cool with TFA, but what if the prompt instead instructed students to argue that schools need more funds to be effective, or that unions have a positive impact on public education? I reckon that some ed wonk/wonkettes' heads would explode.

To me, the problem with this question is that it didn't offer a counter-position, nor did it allow students to choose a side to argue.
6 Comments

I agree. The problem is that they forced the students to take a specific side. If you're going to have them discuss a controversial topic, you need to give them room to choose their own side and make their own argument.

The real story is how did it get on the test in the first place? If Virginia can throw out a question because "too many" African-American boys got it right then there had to be some sort of foul play to get this question in the test. Where are the checks and balances? I guess they are in the testing company's pockets.

I'd argue that (part of) the problem is that they only provide information supporting one side.

There may be some educational value in learning to take information from both sides, and argue a particular side. Debating teams do this; so do lawyers.

But this test question seems to be asking students to listen to one side, and then reflect it back. I find that problematic.

We shouldn't be surprised when Teach For America, one of the top-5 employers of recent college graduates, makes its way into the national parlance. I doubt this will be the last mention of it in a "formal" setting. After all, Princeton ranked Wendy Kopp above Paul Volcker and Richard Feynman on their list of most influential alumni (why do I get the impression that A Voice Cries Out would not be so upset if it were the even-lower-ranked Ralph Nader whose position the students were required to take?).

I don't think we have enough context to determine whether it's problematic that they don't let the kids choose which side to take. As has been mentioned, this is common practice in debate, mock trial, and my high school English teacher's classroom. I wasn't happy that I had to defend Emma Bovary's adultery, but I didn't think it meant that my English teacher was actually supportive of harlotry.

For all we know, the grading of the test will be more consistent and/or timely if the graders are only afforded a rubric with one side of the argument presented. Whether it's grading efficacy or debate-practice mimickry, however, I think the one cause we can rule out is some sort of vast non-lunatic-left-fringe conspiracy. Sorry, A Voice Cries Out, I know "A Brave New World" is a more interesting read than "How to Write a Standardized Test", but these fantasies are far-fetched, to put it mildly.

Socrates, Let's not shoot the messenger - A Voice Cries Out simply made us aware of this test item.

I hear your point on scoring, but I'm with Rachel on this one - it would be more defensible if they were given info on both sides and that had to take one. Just imagine if the requirement was to defend Ralph Nader's position on something - lots of people would be upset. So all sides are happy, I think we need some general guidelines about how these issues are presented in classrooms and on state materials.

I think your proposal, eduwonkette, is reasonable. The messenger, on his or her own blog, however, was not. Repeatedly calling this "propaganda" as if we know the intent of the testing company is hardly unbiased messaging. AVCO's other writings on TFA only serve to demonstrate further the prejudice with which s/he reports.

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