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This post completes a trilogy of reflections on the Connecticut Academic Performance Test (CAPT) which will be terminated once the new Smarter Balance Assessments tied to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) are implemented. There will be at least one more year of the same CAPT assessments, specifically the Interdisciplinary Writing Prompt (IW) where 10th grade students write a persusive essay in response to news articles. While the horribly misnamed Response to Literature (RTL) prompt confuses students as to how to truthfully evaluate an story and drives students into “making stories up” in order to respond to a question, the IW shallowly addresses persuasive writing with prompts that have little academic value.
According to the CAPT Handbook (3rd Generation) on the CT State Department of Eduction’s website, the IW uses authentic nonfiction texts that have been:
“… published and are informational and persuasive, 700-1,000 words each in length, and at a 10th-grade reading level. The texts represent varied content areas (e.g., newspaper, magazine, and online articles, journals, speeches, reports, summaries, interviews, memos, letters, reviews, government documents, workplace and consumer materials, and editorials). The texts support both the pro and con side of the introduced issue. Every effort is made to ensure the nonfiction texts are contemporary, multicultural, engaging, appropriate for statewide implementation, and void of any stereotyping or bias. Each text may include corresponding maps, charts, graphs, and tables.”
Rather than teach this assessment in English, interdisciplinary writing is taught in social studies because the subject of social studies is already interdisciplinary. The big tent of social studies includes elements of economics, biography, law, statistics, theology, philosophy, geography, sociology, psychology, anthropology, political science and, of course, history. Generally, 9th and 10 grade students study the Ancient World through Modern European World (through WWII) in social studies. Some schools may offer civics in grade 10.
Social studies teachers always struggle to capture the breadth of history, usually Western Civilization, in two years. However, for 15 months before the CAPT, social studies teachers must also prepare students to write for the IW test. But does the IW reflect any of the content rich material in social studies class? No, the IW does not. Instead the IW prompt is developed on some “student centered” contemporary issue. For example, past prompts have included:
On the English section of the test, there are responses dealing with theme, character and plot. On the science section, the life, physical and earth sciences are woven together in a scientific inquiry. On the math section, numeracy is tested in problem-solving. In contrast to these disciplines, the social studies section, the IW, has little or nothing to do with the subject content. Students only need to write persuasively on ANY topic:
For each test, a student must respond to one task, composed of a contemporary issue with two sources representing pro/con perspectives on the issue. The task requires a student to take a position on the issue, either pro or con. A student must support his or her position with information from both sources. A student, for example, may be asked to draft a letter to his or her congressperson, prepare an editorial for a newspaper, or attempt to persuade a particular audience to adopt a particular position. The task assesses a student’s ability to respond to five assessed dimensions in relationship to the nonfiction text: (1) take a clear position on the issue, (2) support the position with accurate and relevant information from the source materials, (3) use information from all of the source materials, (4) organize ideas logically and effectively, and (5) express ideas in one’s own words with clarity and fluency.
The “authentic” portions of this test are the news articles, but the released materials illustrate that these news articles are never completely one-sided; if they are written well, they already include a counter-position. Therefore, students are regurgitating already highly filtered arguments. Secondly, the student responses never find their way into the hands of the legislators or newspaper editors, so the responses are not authentic in their delivery. Finally, because these prompts have little to do with social studies, valuable time that could be used to improve student content knowledge of history is being lost. Some teachers use historical content to practice writing skills, but there is always instructional time used to practice with released exam materials.
Why are students asked to argue about the length of a school day when, if presented with enough information, they could argue a position that reflects what they are learning in social studies? If they are provided the same kinds of newspaper, magazine, and online articles, journals, speeches, reports, summaries, interviews, memos, letters, reviews, government documents, workplace and consumer materials, and editorials, could students write persuasive essays with social studies content that is measurable? Most certainly. Students could argue whether they would support a government like Athens or a government like Sparta. Students could be provided brief biographies and statements of belief for different philosophers to argue who they would prefer as a teacher, DesCartes or Hegel. Students could write persuasively about which amendment of the United States Constitution they believe needs to be revisited, Amendment 10 (State’s Rights) or Amendment 27 (Limiting Changes to Congressional Pay).
How unfortunate that such forgettable issues as chocolate milk or ATVs are considered worthy of determining a student’s ability to write persuasively. How inauthentic to encourage students to write to a legislator or editor and then do nothing with the students’ opinions. How depressing to know that the time and opportunity to teach and to measure a student’s understanding of the rich content of social studies is lost every year with IW test preparation.
Maybe the writers of the CAPT IW prompt should have taken a lesson from the writers of Saturday Night Live with the Coffee Talk sketch with Michael Myers. In these sketches, Myers played Linda Richmond, host of the call-in talk show “Coffee Talk”. When s(he) would become too emotional (or feclempt or pheklempt ) to talk, s(he) would “give a topic” to talk “amoungst yourselves”. Holding back tears, waving red nails in front of his face furiously, Myers would gasp out one of the following:
“The Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, Roman, nor an empire….Discuss…”
“Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal was neither new nor a deal…. Discuss…”
“The radical reconstruction of the South was neither radical nor a reconstruction…. Discuss…”
“The internal combustion engine was neither internal nor a combustion engine…. Discuss…”
If a comedy show can come up with these academic topics for laughs, why can’t students answer them for real? At least they would understand what made the sketches funny, and that understanding would be authentic.