Tuesday January 10, 2017

Poet can't answer questions on standardized test about her own poems

Two of Sara Holbrook's poems — "Midnight" and "A Real Case"  — have been used on standardized tests for Texas school children.

Two of Sara Holbrook's poems — "Midnight" and "A Real Case" — have been used on standardized tests for Texas school children. (Jennifer Hearn)

Listen 6:37

If anyone should have been able to answer the questions, it's Sara Holbrook.

The Ohio-based poet recently wrote a piece for the Huffington Post about her inability to answer questions on a standardized test — which is especially concerning because the questions were about her own poems.

In recent years, two of her works — "A Real Case" and "Midnight" — were featured on tests for Grade 7 and 8 students in Texas. Teachers often use past tests to prepare their students for upcoming tests. 

On Monday, Sara Holbrook told As it Happens guest host Helen Mann why she thinks there's a better way for students to learn about poetry. 

HELEN MANN: Ms. Holbrook, if you have difficulty answering questions about your own poems, how do you think the students actually taking these standardized tests are doing?

Ohio poet Sara Holbrook

Sara Holbrook is a poet who lives in Cleveland, Ohio. (Jennifer Hearn)

SARA HOLBROOK: Well, the problem is the construction of the questions, right? And, we've all taken these tests before. They're uniformly vague on purpose. They are written so that there is more than one right answer and the kid must choose the most right answer. It's just frustrating … They're actually fictional questions that some test designer has made up. What I have a problem with is that they frequently go to the author's motivation for writing the piece. And I realize by saying this I'm kind of taking on many people in the academic community, but I think we've kind of jumped the shark when we go from what does this passage mean to you, why does this simile work for you, what image does this evoke … to the author's intent was to make you feel this.

Sara Holbrook "A Real Case"

Sara Holbrook's poem "A Real Case" appeared on a standardized test in Texas in 2014. (Texas Education Agency/State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR))

HM: So, can you give us some examples of the questions on this test about your poems?

SH: It says, "The poet reveals the speaker's feelings mainly by using similes and metaphors to describe them, explaining their effect on others, connecting them to memories or repeating specific words for emphasis." Now, I do have — just to let you know — a word that is repeated throughout the poem. The word is "today." So, I might say that's a little true. I could say connecting them to memories. Well, how else would I know about "incoming dog breath" except a memory, right? And then, explaining their effect on others. In the poem, I say, I'm about as useless as "a leftover bath" or I'm as welcome as "incoming dog breath." So, that's my effect on others. And then it says, I use similes and metaphors to describe them. All of those are true.

HM: So, every answer is effective right?

SH: Every answer is true. But, it's my job as the test taker to climb into the test writer's mind and say what one did they think was the most right.

HM: What do you think of the intelligence of the questions being asked?

SH: I think they're silly. Laughable. Except, kids lives depend on this — whether or not they're promoted to the next grade. My own daughter is a teacher in Virginia and 40 per cent of her evaluation depends on how her kids do on these guessing games. And, they are guessing games because there is no right or wrong answer.  

HM: If you could speak directly to these 12- and 13-year-olds, some of them perhaps agonizing over and analyzing your poems on these tests, what would you say to them?

"I would rather turn kids loose in the library, let them find poetry that speaks to them, and let's start a discussion." - Sara Holbrook, poet

SH: I'm so sorry. I hope if this poem does not speak to you, that you don't turn off to all poetry and you go find a voice that does speak to you. I think of poetry a little bit like music. If you just introduced your average middle-schooler to Frank Sinatra and said, "That's music," they might say "bleh." But, if they can go find the music to speaks to them... So, I would rather turn kids loose in the library, let them find poetry that speaks to them, and let's start a discussion.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. For more on this story, listen to our full interview with poet Sara Holbrook.