Monday, April 16, 2007

Author Used in TAKS Flunks Test

Ohanian Comment: I, too, have long admired Naomi Shihab Nye's work, but knowing she was a willing participant in having her work desecrated, will never feel the same about that work. She seems to fail to see that the real trouble is that she allowed her work to be desecrated by state testing.

Three cheers for Rick Casey! But I wish he'd asked his friend Naomi Shihab Nye if she will allow any more of her work to appear on a high stakes test.

I wish I could persuade teachers to help me in my longstanding project of identifying authors whose work is used on these tests across the country. Authors must stand by their words, not by the testing mandates of corporate America.

If any of you students who took the TAKS test this week get your reading scores and find that you were marked wrong on a number of the answers, here is what you do:

Call the author of the piece on which you were tested and ask him or her to intervene for you.

While you were hunkered down this past week taking the test, I was talking to one of the authors whose work appeared in last year's 10th-grade test.

Naomi Shihab Nye is one of Texas' best poets and a fine essayist and novelist.

She was a finalist for the National Book Award two years ago, has four times won the Pushcart Prize for small press literature, has appeared on two PBS poetry specials (one with Bill Moyers) and on A Prairie Home Companion.

She is a woman of great warmth and wisdom, qualities that make her a frequent "writer in residence" in schools.

She is also a good friend and former neighbor, so I was eager to hear how she felt about having one of her essays used in the TAKS test.

Her first response was that she was honored to have one of her essays chosen, and that it actually helped her work with a group of students at George West High School in South Texas last spring.

She had forgotten that she had, many months earlier, given permission for the essay to be used in the test. Now she was with students who had just taken that test.

'One humorless fireman' "When I walked into the George West library, the students' feelings of friendliness and warmth really hit me," she said. "It felt like they already knew me. They already had things they wanted to talk about."

The essay begins with her son Madison, then 4, writing out her name and his and drawing lines from the letters in his name to the same letters in hers.

"Naomi, look, we're inside one another, did you know that? Your name is here, inside mine!"

She muses, in her vivid, poetic fashion, on her name, which means "pleasant," and on the changes in her life, including falling in love, marrying and taking on another name.

It ends with her and her husband inviting every Nye in the San Antonio phonebook to a potluck dinner at their house. All but "one humorless fireman" showed up.

She said the students seemed energized by the story to tell stories of their own, which is exactly what she wanted.

Details stick in the minds On her way home from George West, Naomi was struck by how the students had remembered details of the piece but, when she asked, could remember none of the questions. When I sent her copies of the questions, she said "It reminded me of the trouble I always had with standardized tests."

The trouble? "Almost every question has more than one 'right' answer," she said.

That's the difference between testers and writers. Poets and other literary writers see literature as a collaborative engagement between the writer and the reader. They expect different readers to have different reactions to their work, to draw different messages based on their experiences and concerns.

So she had a problem with a question that asked what the essay was "mainly about." Answers included "moving to a new place" and "the significance of names."

"Say a kid had just moved to a new place and had a lot of revelations about himself, that would be the right answer for him," she said. "Another kid who felt special about names would focus on that."

She had similar arguments with the answers to several other questions, arguments she had had since, at age 22, one of her poems was selected for a textbook.

"Out of five questions the kids were supposed to answer, I couldn't answer three," she said.

Literature is about exploring, not about measuring.

Naomi has seen "a growing desperation" among teachers with whom she works in the schools as they are pressured to focus on the test.

Teachers with the skills and the circumstances to lead their students in creative exercises find them doing better on the standardized tests. Teachers mired in almost constant test preparation worry about them doing worse in life.

You can write to Rick Casey at P.O. Box 4260, Houston, TX 77210, or e-mail him at

— Rick Casey
Houston Chronicle



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