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CCCC 2001 in Review: I.32 Alternative Discourses and State-Mandated Assessments: Another "Collision Course"?

Marjorie Roemer: Chair
Russell Durst presented "Reflecting on Collision Courses: Student Desires/Faculty Desires."
Carolyn Panofsky presented "Preparing Teachers of the Future with Testing from the Past."
MaryKay Schnare presented "Standards-Based Instruction: Intentions vs. Realities."
Denise Patmon presented "Trying to Reconcile Divergent Agendas."
Peter Elbow: Responder

I.32 managed to fit into two of my idiosyncratic categories of conference presentation viewing in that I.32 both spoke to me (I, like the panelist, work with students and teachers who are struggling with what Susan O'Hanian calls "the Standardistas," folks who have a seeming endless faith in standardized tests) and it had a certain amount of star quality-Peter Elbow.

I hate to admit this in print, but I will nevertheless: I'm a bit of an Elbow-head (sort of like a Deadhead, but with a fondness for freewriting rather than patchouli). The truth is that at one young point in my career I not merely taught from Sharing and Responding, but I contemplated switching to turtle necked themed teaching garb. Fortunately, cooler heads prevailed on the turtleneck issue (my wife to be exact), but I still mine Elbow on a regular basis for good ideas about writing.

I.32 started out with Russell Durst speaking about high-stakes testing as it pertains to both students and faculty in terms of writing. Durst reminded the audience that students often want standards and redlining of their work, and that teachers often resist this impulse in their students. Durst spoke about the need for teachers to get involved in the decision-making going on around high-stakes testing, and he make a variety of other sound and interesting suggestions. One suggestion that Durst made which seemed to run counter to what students in my state have experienced was a claim that he made that some good can come from testing for poor performing schools via standardized testing. While I'm willing to admit that this is possible, the experience of poor performing schools in Connecticut on our state-mandated tests (the CMT and CAPT tests) doesn't bear that out. In fact, recently money that had been set aside to bring low performing schools up to the state standards had been quietly removed from the education budget-after only being in existence for about three years. Perhaps in Ohio, Durst's home, low-performing schools gain something from standardized testing, but that clearly hasn't been the case in my home state.

But this is a quibble really, and I don't want to represents Durst's presentation. It was engaging, and it led quite nicely into what Carolyn Panofsky had to say about the costs of teacher testing-for the teachers themselves. Panofsky pointed out that often the teachers who struggle with standardized teacher-certification tests, such as the NTE, PRAXIS I and II, are non-traditional students who may not have much experience with standardized testing generally. She talked specifically, and movingly, about a student who had struggled with standardized tests-concluding that while this student was finally able to pass the particular test in question, teacher-tests in general are creating "a univocal regime" in teacher-preparation.

This concern, that somehow teacher preparation is becoming univocal and unwelcoming to students who may be at some sort of disadvantage, be it class-based or otherwise, in terms passing a given standardized test, is a concern that I share someone dedicated to preparing secondary school teachers. What is interesting is that the next person who spoke, Mary Kay Schnare, seemed to speak in certain ways that seemed counter to what Panofsky had said.

Mary Kay Schnare spoke about her belief in standards for students, which seemed to ignore, in some ways, the points that Panofsky had made. However, Schnare asked some interesting questions, specifically: which standards should schools meet, and what are the true standards that schools should meet. Schnare's answer was that we need a standards-based curriculum that is developmentally appropriate, based in disciplinary knowledge, individualized for students, and inclusive, in that it allows students, teachers, administrators, and parents to have a voice in the standards.

While it is hard to find fault with much of what Schnare said, I did find myself wondering why Schnare really didn't address some of the political issues that surround standards. For instance, why didn't Schnare ask this question: who gets to create the standards that teachers, parents, administrators, and students have to live with?

Interestingly enough, Denise Patmon asked this very question, and what is more interesting is the way that Patmon went about addressing this question-through research into the attitudes and views of "the silenced" urban parents of school children who have, as Patmon pointed out, "the most to lose." What was interesting about the answers that Patmon found was their range. They ranged from the answers that Mr. Tran gave, largely supportive of standards, to those that Miss Williams gave, where she pointed out that often standards don't deal with the unfair way that poor children are treated in our public schools, and what they do is to, "help sell homes in the suburban areas."

Ultimately, from Patmon, and the other panelists, I got a very good idea about where exactly we, as a discipline, stand on the issue of standards based testing: clearly straddling the middle. We can see the need for standards, as Schnare does, but like Miss Williams we, hopefully, understand that the result of standardized testing is that suburbanites clearly know where to buy their homes-in the suburbs that have the fine test scores.

At the end of this diverse set of opinions, came Peter Elbow-acting as respondent to the myriad of views that came before him. With his eyes closed in thought, Elbow outlined his fears about high-stakes testing ("My main reaction is to be very troubled by high-stakes testing") to trying to envision ways in which we, as teachers could "make a virtue out of a necessity." Elbow envisioned a world in which teachers and students could become allies to pass standardized tests-with evaluation (the continual bugaboo of student-teacher relationships) residing outside of the student-teacher relationship, and he also mentioned that perhaps standards could make us more purposeful in our teaching of audience and genre. Still, from what Elbow said, and the conversation that followed it during the Q&A session, it was clear that neither the panel nor the field really had a firm and unshakeable idea on the utility or purpose of high-stakes testing. And this was, and is, a fitting place to end any discussion of external testing because what exactly it means, in terms of politics, education, and even social justice, is still up for grabs. We are at the beginning of a movement to standardize secondary education instruction, and what exactly this movement will mean, for good or ill, is really anybody's guess.

At the moment, I feel like I've left myself and my readers in a somber sort of place, which wasn't my intention. I didn't really want to end with a discussion of high-stakes testing-regardless of how interesting and generative that discussion was-because this years' 4Cs was not merely about addressing tough questions in the field. It was also about hanging out in the halls and catching up, getting beer with colleagues who you get to see more in four days than in the previous four months, and finding a kicking blues club to hang in while the music and beer wraps around you like a fine warm wool coat. In 1997 I didn't get this, but I think I get it now. And now, I hit the panels a little more selectively-waiting to be surprised and inspired, as I was in Chicago, by friends, comrades in Composition-arms and the stars of the field we all are. [CD]

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