Literature is losing the battle against testing

Literature for only the few

has dire consequences for all

Posted on April 23, 2012

by Stacie Vos

In her opinion piece in this past week’s The New York Times Sunday Review, teacher Claire Needell Hollander describes her reasoning for setting up a reading enrichment course in New York City:

“I thought additional ‘cultural capital’ could help students like her fare better in high school, where they would inevitably encounter, perhaps for the first time, peers who came from homes lined with bookshelves, whose parents had earned not G.E.D.’s but Ph.D.’s”.

This quote reminds me of a study released in 2010, and a comment made once by my education professor Sam Intrator, which revealed that the number of books in a child’s home can have as much of an impact as a parent’s education level.

But this is only one of the many points addressed in Hollander’s piece. She writes about a topic that is often, and increasingly, ignored in debates on education today: the love of literature.

Gerhard Richter

With the increasing focus on test scores, Hollander has had to decrease the number of reading enrichment courses she teaches. Now, only students with the highest scores are able to take the course.

What about the effect of literature on all students? Hollander describes a boy in one of her classes who cried at the end of the book Of Mice and Men. A student’s genuine emotional response to a text is a teacher’s dream, but, unfortunately, tears only ruin a Scantron sheet.

Students like this, whom Hollander calls one of her “toughest,” might well test into a lower-level class, one that offers not classic literature but writing that is meant to be “culturally neutral.” Needell Hollander writes that these types of texts, “supposed to give students a level playing field on the exams… bleed our English classes dry.”

Hollander concludes by saying that “we are withholding from our neediest students any reason to read at all.” In order to give students this reason, she points out, we must show them that reading “belongs to them.” In other words, students need to read something that means something to them, and they need to feel safe and invited to share unique interpretations.

Hollander’s piece makes so many important points, points that I assume many English teachers (as well as parents, other educators, concerned citizens) understand well. Literature has the ability to reach the neediest students in an emotional sense. It also has a unique way of inviting critical thought and interpretation, other crucial areas that are not encouraged in the context of test-focused teaching. Visual Art, nowhere near the focus of test writers and administrators, is another subject that helps students engage with their emotions and thoughts at once. It urges them to question, to handle ambiguity, and to notice details.

It is devastating to think that in the name of “accessibility” for all, the writings of so many are lost. Perhaps we cannot measure the effects of sharing real literature with our students, but we can, in the meantime, count up the many students who leave before finishing high school, never having found a real reason to stay.

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One Response to “ Literature is losing the battle against testing ”

  1. Cari says:

    I completely agree, Stacie.

    When I first became an English teacher, a surprising number of people asked (disparagingly), “Do you think you’re going to teach kids to love books?” While that was never my primary goal, it did seem like a valuable potential bonus (if not “books,” maybe at least one book). I can’t imagine anyone looking at education now and asking a teacher that question. As annoying as I found it, not hearing it anymore is worse.

    When do we give kids a chance to fall in love with a book, with science, with history, with math, with the arts? Why do so many believe we have to force children to learn? Wouldn’t it be better–and have far more lasting results–to work to help them love learning?