The TExES Content Exam Doesn’t Care About Content: A Rant

As I offhandedly mentioned in an earlier post, I’m currently working on becoming a certified teacher. For a variety of reasons, my desire to work in a public school is somewhere in the negative thousands, but it’s my earnest hope that the experience of student teaching, combined with a graduate degree in my field, will land me a job at a private school. In the meantime, though, I’m studying for the TExES exam in secondary English. In theory, these exams are designed to ensure that first-year teachers have the “content knowledge” required to succeed in the classroom.

It’s probably a measure of my naiveté that, when I first heard about these tests, I assumed that “content knowledge” meant “content knowledge”—as in, knowledge of a field of study. Of course, it rankled a bit that two degrees in English did not constitute sufficient proof of my content knowledge, but since we do love our standardized tests in America, I was hardly surprised. I was also generally sanguine about the test; I did well on the GRE subject test in literature, so I thought that this test would be no problem at all.

I was in for two rude wake-up calls. The first was that the test is almost entirely oriented towards pedagogy (this, despite the fact that there is another required exam explicitly entitled “Pedagogy and Professional Responsibilities”). The second was that, judging by the practice materials, the rare questions that do test subject knowledge are alarmingly prone to errors. Here is a brief list of some of the mistakes I caught:

  1. A synopsis of The Epic of Gilgamesh that claims Gilgamesh and his friend Enkidu travel together looking for a means of attaining immortality; in fact, it is Enkidu’s death that prompts Gilgamesh’s quest.
  2. A synopsis of Animal Farm that claims the novel satirizes the class system in England. Orwell, himself a socialist, was harshly critical of the aftermath of the Russian Revolution and wrote the novel in large part as a critique of Stalinism.
  3. A question asking the test-taker to identify the Victorian writer that in fact includes two Victorian writers and one borderline Romantic/Victorian writer in its answer choices (Tennyson, Eliot, and Charlotte Brontë, respectively—for the morbidly curious, the answer sheet incorrectly identifies Eliot as a Romantic writer and proclaims Tennyson to be the Victorian)
  4. A question in which the nominally correct answer identifies Edgar Allan Poe as a Neoclassical writer (correct period: Romantic)
  5. A question asking for a synopsis of “The Wife of Bath’s Tale” from The Canterbury Tales. The correct answer gets several points wrong, most notably the fact that the “unpleasant woman” the knight begrudgingly marries is not the woman he raped, nor is she the woman who dictates his punishment. I’m also docking extra points for the gratuitous misogyny of referring to a woman whose primary trait is “physically unattractive” as “unpleasant.”
  6. A pedagogy-oriented question in which one of the answers incorrectly identifies O Brother, Where Art Thou? as a modern reworking of The Iliad rather than The Odyssey
  7. A question in which the “correct” answer involves a misreading of the first stanza of Paul Laurence’s Dunbar’s “Sympathy,” which I will quote below. The state-provided study guide incorrectly states that the first lines use images of a free bird’s beauty as a counterpoint to later images of a caged bird’s suffering. Technically, the poem does mention a free bird in the first stanza, but the more relevant contrast is obviously between the caged bird’s imprisonment and the world beyond its bars (the “caged bird,” after all, is already imprisoned, making the imagery of the first stanza bittersweet rather than joyful).

I know what the caged bird feels, alas!

When the sun is bright on the upland slopes;

When the wind stirs soft through the springing grass,

And the river flows like a stream of glass;

When the first bird sings and the first bud opes,

And the faint perfume from its chalice steals—

I know what the caged bird feels!

And all this is to say nothing of the scads of grammatical and orthographical errors (ranging from those unrelated to the subject of the question to those that are liable to lead a test-taker to answer “incorrectly” by in fact answering correctly).

To be fair, some of these examples came from study guides written by people unaffiliated with ETS. That said, I took the question on Dunbar from the state-provided preparation materials, so I can only assume it’s a fair reflection of what the actual test will look like. And what that tells me is that the test is being written by people who not only lack expertise in literature, but who also lack the ability to interpret a piece of literature on a purely literal—much less critical—level.

You might say that none of these mistakes are exactly earth-shattering in their consequences, and you’d likely be correct. I can, however, think of at least two ways in which these mistakes are highly significant. For one, I, along with anyone else taking the exam, have a vested interest in the creators of the test actually knowing what they’re talking about; it is beyond galling to think that I could be penalized for answering “incorrectly”—that my subject knowledge could actually be judged inadequate—because the test’s creators couldn’t be bothered to make sure that they’ve got their facts straight. Lately, when I’ve taken practice tests, I’ve found myself in the unenviable position of constantly trying to gauge just how misinformed the writers of the test are, exactly, so that I can answer accordingly. It should go without saying that this makes a complete mockery of the idea that this test is in any way a reliable indication of what someone does or doesn’t know; the test becomes a bizarre and unpleasant exercise in mind reading rather than a measurement of one’s expertise in English.

Second, and more importantly, these mistakes tell me that everything the government says about ensuring teachers have an in-depth knowledge of their field—the putative rationale for the “highly qualified” designation required by No Child Left Behind—is complete and utter hypocrisy. Of course, the ratio of pedagogical to content-based questions would already tend to suggest that, as would numerous other warning signs (witness: the incredibly lax academic standards of many teacher preparation programs, or the fact that a mysterious group of “content experts” and “curriculum specialists” have more authority than teachers when it comes to designing and implementing the curriculum). What strikes me about this, though, is the absolute starkness of the state’s priorities. How much time, effort, and money could it possibly take to do some basic fact-checking? And no one felt that that was worthwhile?

I understand that the state wants to ensure that teachers have some knowledge of pedagogy, but frankly, it’s absolutely insane that knowledge of pedagogy has eclipsed knowledge of content in importance. There’s also a clear bias towards the sciences (excluding evolution, of course); time and again, I’ve come across questions about incorporating scientific reading into English courses. Pardon my ignorance, but couldn’t tips for understanding this kind of reading be included in an actual science course? I highly doubt that science teachers are expected to give equal weight to the humanities; I just don’t see a science teacher saying, “Yes, but have you thought about how the pervasive coding of nature as female and passive and science as masculine and active in scientific discourse reinforces a gender binary?”, not least because of the state’s position on anything that might “expose” students to “transvestites, transsexuals and who knows what else.” And then, of course, there are the multiple references to the idea that the main function of education is to transform students into good little corporate workers. Teacher prep study guides and coursework routinely stress that English is important in large part because developing students’ language skills will help them succeed in the business world; one sample question suggests bringing in a businessman to talk about the relative efficacy of different forms of advertising. And while there have been some efforts to address these obvious biases, the procedural changes in question don’t tackle the curriculum itself.

At this point, I’m not even going to try to define what the purpose of English classes should be; I’ve vented for long enough, and it would be well beyond the scope of one post anyway. But maybe I will at some point in the future; if the TExES exam is any indication, there are certainly things that need to be said.



Filed under Thoughts, Criticism, and Other Informal Ramblings

3 responses to “The TExES Content Exam Doesn’t Care About Content: A Rant

  1. It is common throughout life to rely on bureaucratic lackeys with limited knowledge when subject-matter experts would be better but too expensive. I used to date a woman from ETS in New Jersey. Her job was to do research for the lackeys and she used to tell me the dumb stuff she had forwarded to her for verification. The unstated truth was, however, that only a small part of the “stuff” even went to the verifiers.

    But reading your note I was reminded of what I considered the second hardest test I ever took, the English portion of the GRE (the hardest was a Civil Service test for the Naval Academy). I had to ride a bus from UCLA over to USC for the exam, sit in one of those medieval torture chairs for three hours, and answer questions that were to test your knowledge of literature, but also to trick you whenever possible.

    I remember a question where quote from Henry IV as Falstaff is showing how Hal should act before the King and although it is clearly Hal speaking, it is really Falstaff (this being one reason why my graduate work concentrated on the staging of the drama and not the reading of the play).

    I hated tests and I suspect that tests, like so much in life, have been cheapened by the effects of GREED over the years since I was in college … it must be very scary today.

    • I remember being really concerned about the GRE in English for exactly the reason you mentioned: so much of it is designed to trick you rather than to test you. I don’t put a lot of stock in it as anything but (maybe) a measure of your knowledge of trivia. I’ve always disliked standardized tests, but I’ve also tended to do well on them, so the fact that I haven’t been doing well on these practice exams is kind of a shock.

      I also think you may very well be right when you say tests like these ones may have been cheapened over the years. I hate to sound like a conspiracy theorist–I’m not generally–but so much of what goes on between the test companies, the certification programs, and the state feels a little…incestuous. The coursework in my own certification program, for instance, praised the STAAR exams for their depth and rigor at every possible opportunity, and it rubbed me the wrong way.

  2. Pingback: On Subbing, and Why I’m Slowly Losing the Will to Teach | Reading In The Growlery

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