The Year My Test Scores Sucked

As I drive over to Dennis Denziger’s class at Venice High, I keep comparing Jennifer’s class to my own experience.  Most of my time as a teacher, I taught English electives.  But in 2011-12, I taught one section of English 11, and it was a train wreck.  The subject of “English” is a morass; even supposedly measurable areas like vocabulary and grammar are in fact very difficult to disentangle from much more intangible, emotion-laden things like meaning, thinking, imagining and believing. The unit I taught on The Great Gatsby was a perfect example. From the beginning, my 32 students were thrown by the impenetrable social references. Unlike Jennifer’s students, most of whom are middle or upper-middle class, almost 100% of mine lived in poverty. About a third of my students were classified as English Language Learners, including one boy who’d emigrated from Mexico only the year before.

Three of the kids in my class were in Special Ed, one of whom was extremely bright, angry and disruptive; another, with severe visual processing issues, could not understand anything he read despite the massive efforts of our Special Ed team to pull him out often. I also had one boy, a very smart, poetry-loving kid with a mop of curly hair, who slept on his desk every day because he’d worked all night in the warehouse of the American Apparel factory.

In addition, almost half the class were seniors but were taking the class again because they’d failed English 11 the first time around.

On the first day of the Great Gatsby unit, I projected the first few sentences of the book onto the whiteboard so we could all go over them together:

In my younger and more vulnerable years my father gave me some advice that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since.

“Whenever you feel like criticizing any one,” he told me, “just remember that all the people in this world haven’t had the advantages that you’ve had.”

He didn’t say any more, but we’ve always been unusually communicative in a reserved way, and I understood that he meant a great deal more than that. In consequence, I’m inclined to reserve all judgments, a habit that has opened up many curious natures to me and also made me the victim of not a few veteran bores.

There were words in the passage that I knew many of my students might not know: “communicative,” “vulnerable,” “reserved,” so we defined them together.  But the biggest stumbling block was something I hadn’t anticipated: the presence of words they thought they knew but which were used in a different, antiquated sense.  “A habit that has opened up many curious natures,” for example, puzzled them because no one knew that the familiar word “curious” could also mean “strange.”  They were perplexed by the expression “veteran bores,” which one super-bright kid thought might mean army veterans who victimized the narrator by boring into him with something.

Even though many of the kids were among the brightest I’ve ever taught, it took a good 20 minutes of discussion until the whole class understood the first page, which is littered with references to the Middle West, the East and New Haven in ways that require an understanding of what these locations connoted to upper middle class white people of the 1920’s.

The entire book was a minefield.  If I led a class discussion in a way that would allow everyone to thoroughly understand the book, by the time we were done we’d all be several thousand years old.  But how could I pick what to teach and what to skip? I did my best but I’m fairly certain that except for three or four highly diligent girls and the boy from Mexico who was one of the most dedicated students I’ve ever met, most of my students did not read The Great Gatsby outside of class.

Crazy as it sounds, though, the class loved Gatsby. We had terrific discussions about the American Dream, social mobility and romantic love.  Was Daisy a manipulative bitch or was she just a realist?  Was Gatsby a fool or the last true believer in America?  The kids defined the American Dream as the belief that in this country, you could achieve anything you wanted if you worked hard enough.  When I asked who among them believed that this was still true, almost all of them raised their hands.

I loved our long, free-wheeling arguments.  But there was never enough time to cover everything: texts, vocabulary, grammar, literary terms and of course, analytic writing, a monster of a topic that could have occupied four years of class time all on its own.  I finished every class nearly breathless, having covered only a tiny portion of everything I’d planned.  At the end of the year, my students’ test scores sucked.

Okay, that’s not scientific.  I don’t remember the actual scores at all, to tell the truth.  But I do remember the searing disappointment I felt when I saw the bar on the chart that showed how little they’d improved.  The same is true, by the way, for most teachers of 11th grade English in California because the 11th grade tests notoriously make a big jump in difficulty from English tests of 9th and 10th grades.  One of the biggest issues with test score measurements is that some courses always tend to score high, while others always tend to score low.  9th grade anything tends to show dramatic improvement.  11th grade anything tends to show disappointing growth.

Still, if you go on test score improvement, the data will tell you that I was pretty much of dud. 

What should I have done? A teacher committed to showing growth would have studied the test, raking it for clues about what to focus on and what to ignore next time.  Some might call that “data-driven instruction.” Others might call it “teaching to the test.”

Whatever I should have done, I do think my students will always remember Gatsby.  Maybe late at night years from now, middle-aged and thinking of some lost dream of youth, they’ll remember the book, consoled by the imaginary company of a long-dead writer who had also reached out for some brilliant thing he’d longed for and couldn’t grasp.

But how can you measure that?


6 thoughts on “The Year My Test Scores Sucked”

  1. fascinating experience

    but i took many classes where shakespeare was taught. no one in the class, no matter how privileged an upbringing, walked in with an understanding of elizabethan cultural references, or 16th century English jargon, let alone Iambic pentameter

    but the things i think most or even all those students did walk in with were

    a belief in the fundamental value of hard work, even for its own sake

    a belief in their own abilities to take on challenges and hunt down new knowledge and resources

    a faith in the continuing huge value of doing so

    and so, those students may have moaned and groaned (i did) but they believed they could and should tackle — even master — sometimes painful reams of 400 year old literature

    i fear your students have been trampled and insulted and angered by a society that doesn’t work hard enough to give them that basic self-confidence and hunger for self improvement

    its an old cliche, but maybe public schools should focus more on teaching kids to fish and less on giving them fish. unfortunately, by the time you got to them, those kids had not yet been taught to fish. unlike the kids in my high school shakespeare class, who didnt know squat about what the word “anon” means, or about medieval english royalty, or what it meant to be a Jew in venice in the middle ages, but were pretty damned fine fishermen and fisherwomen, and immediately set about casting their nets.

    of course i’m an armchair quarterback – i have no idea how to solve this problem. but i do think its largely about better parenting and super early education and nutrition and role models. daniel moynihan laid it all out clearly in 1965 … and its only got worse –

    as for more modern approached, my oldest son sam goes to a boarding school that is playing with “the flipped classroom” and results are encouraging and maybe such would help your gatsby case as well?

  2. I love the quotation from Gatsby. It reminds me of a wise man who once said his father “*did* suffer fools gladly.” Saying in 4 words what took Fitzgerald dozens.

    Returning to the text, I think the flipped idea is awesome. I was talking about it with a friend recently, a former English teacher and now a school district tech director responsible for helping classrooms to flip, and she said — but English classrooms have always been flipped! You get the content at home, and come in and work with it at school.

    Tangentially related — “content”! What a gross word to use when we’re talking about learning.

  3. Of course your test scores sucked. When you have students doing the graveyard shift at a factory, or trying to figure out a new language in a new country, they are in survival mode. Understanding the nuances of what a reference like “New Haven” meant in America eighty years ago is not exactly on their radar. How could it be? Test scores could probably measure how well the kids learned “The Great Gatsby.” What they probably couldn’t measure was the other thing you were obviously teaching — the possibilities of learning. Once that door is opened, at whatever age, you give kids, or at least start to give them, the academic and emotional tools they need to keep learning, not just through high school or college, but throughout their lives. Isn’t that what schools are supposed to do? If your students were arguing about the merits and dreams of Gatsby and Daisy, that means you brought them to life. Isn’t that what literature is about? Now that the kids appreciate the heart and soul and value of a good book, they’ll have plenty of time to learn about the various meanings of the word “curious.” And then, their test scores will rise.

  4. 1. 11th grade test scores do always suck. Also, the English/Language Arts part of the test that has been given in CA for several years, also sucks. Without a doubt the majority of highly-educated parents in the state would be furious if their kids’ high school English teachers spent too much time teaching to the test because it is so boring and pointless. Somehow, though, it is okay for us to insist on teaching to the test with the poor kids.
    2. Yep, most high school English classrooms are already “flipped.”
    3. Great nutrition, adequate sleep, and solid early childhood education would certainly help more than any “data-driven” BS.
    4. Gatsby is much more difficult to teach than Shakespeare is. I teach To Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet to 9th graders, and Romeo and Juliet is significantly easier to help them through than Mockingbird. We can read essentially the whole thing aloud, with props and frequent stops for explanation, plus watching film clips and so forth. Mockingbird, though, would take hours upon hours to read aloud, so they have to read significant parts by themselves, and, as you stated with Gatsby, figuring out what words they don’t know, what parts are confusing, is both unpredictable and overwhelming. Even if they do read it, a chunk of them will still have no idea what they just read.

    Finally–this is awesome! So glad you are doing it!

    1. Thanks so much for the kind words! It’s so interesting to me that Shakespeare is easier to teach than some 20th century tests. My students always loved Shakespeare, too. But maybe it helps going in that the language is difficult for all of us–not just them. That way we’re all muddling through together.

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