Every quarter during the school year the City sends out what they call a Benchmark assessment. This is designed to check how the students current skills match up with the City's timeline of skills mastery as laid out in the curriculum written at North Ave headquarters. These tests are used superficially to rate student progress; their true intention is of course to rate how well teachers and schools are doing.
There are major problems with these tests. Often they don't align properly with the pre-announced skills. The most recent one had fact and opinion questions, but fact and opinion was not one of the skills we were told would be on the test. That's ok, because I had a couple days to look over the test ahead of time to prepare the kids.
More difficult is the fact that the texts in the assessments are often wholly unrelated to the experience of City kids. The most recent Benchmark had long, detailed texts about The Nazca Lines, dining options on space missions, and sail boats and tides. I took some extra time before the test to show pictures and videos I made of the Nazca lines before the test to prep the kids, but it wasn't enough.
My kids don't know jack about sail boats and tides. They have no idea what a tide is. They live in the ghetto, and they rarely get outside a 5 or 6 block radius. In fact, most have NEVER been out of their neighborhood. Most have never been in a swimming pool. They don't see tides or boats, and the associated jargon is mystifying to them. They don't know anything about Peru or Indians and ancient civilizations either. They see these texts and their brains shut down because every sentence has a word like "mast" or "dock" or "pier" or "archaeologist" or "plateau" and there's insufficient context for them to figure out the meanings. Imagine an entire story about a child piloting a sail boat when the wind dies and she gets swept out to sea by the tide and has to be rescued, and the title is "Tidal Tale" and the question associated with the text asks them about how appropriate the title is and the kids haven't a clue what a tide is, let alone what "tacking" is, or what the fuck a "buoy" is. Even if they have mastered main idea they are at a disadvantage.
The City has decided to use all social studies and science texts on the language arts assessments to prepare the kids because those subjects will be tested starting next year in addition to math and science and reading. But City kids have substantial gaps in general knowledge not shared by their yacht-club peers in Annapolis--it doesn't seem fair that they get the same test. I remember the first big annual NCLB assessment I gave at the Book had texts about archery, farming, and ski resorts. No wonder the kids in Harford County scored highest and the City kids scored lowest. Why don't they include texts about splitting and distributing a package? Or about junkies? I mean, I don't want my kids spoon-fed only stuff they know: I want them to have broader horizons. But we can't make up all this ground this quickly. And the tests are making them feel stupid and inferior, and they are not. When they feel stupid and inferior they get hopeless and they act a donkey and their frustration and rage boils over. Then I get desperate and frustrated and eventually start to phone it in. NOT!