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Testing Literature: The Current State of Affairs. ERIC Digest.
Many who have seen Robin Williams as Mr. Keating in Dead Poet's Society have said that things aren't that way now. The schools don't treat literature as a set of dead facts that can be weighed and measured. Mr. Keating was a voice in the wilderness of the 1950's but things have changed now. Or have they? If you look at the tests that face today's students, you would see that Mr. Keating has been thoroughly routed from the schools. Such are the findings of a new report of the Center for The Learning and Teaching of Literature at the University at Albany, which is sponsored by the Office of Educational Research and Improvement of the United States Department of Education and by the National Endowment for the Arts.
The nation's testing programs devote a great deal of energy to testing reading and writing, but they fail to treat literature and cultural literacy seriously. The artistic aspects of literature and the cultural heritage of our society are not reflected in the nation's tests and as a result lead to neglect by the schools. The tests focus on literal comprehension and on the reading of prose fiction. Poetry and drama are seldom included. If literature and its artistic aspects are not made important in those tests which affect students' lives and influence teaching, no wonder that students' knowledge and appreciation are as poor as critics of the schools like E. D. Hirsch, Jr., Diane Ravitch, and Allan Bloom claim they are.
CONTENT VERSUS KNOWLEDGE
A typical test will have a two-paragraph excerpt from a novel or story and follow it with three or four questions like these fictitious examples:
*In line 10, the word rogue means: a) stranger, b) out of control, c) colored with red, d) falling apart
*The two people are: a) father and son, b) brothers, c) husband and wife, d) strangers
*This section is about: a) the end of an adventure, b) the relationship between people and animals, c) the climax of a journey, d) the break-up of a family
Such questions hardly tap the imaginative power of fiction or drama; in fact they reduce them to the level of textbooks where the knowledge is factual. Some of the published texts go so far as to ask true or false questions like: Huckleberry Finn is a good boy, or Hamlet is Mad. As a result, students find that they do not have to read the selection; they can turn to plot summaries or simplified study guides.
SUMMARY AND CONCLUSIONS
By and large the tests that now exist in the United States do not live up to the standards set by the examination systems of countries in which student achievement in literature is high. There is little focus on students' abilities to penetrate a text or to use the array of cultural and literary knowledge that should have been made available to them. The power of literature to capture the imagination of the reader remains unexplored in most assessments, which treat the texts as if they were no different from articles in encyclopedias or research reports. This state of affairs is contrary to the type of approach to literature that Mr. Keating espoused.
A copy of the complete report, P. Brody, C. DeMilo, and A. C. Purves, The Current State of Assessment in Literature, Report Series 3.1 is available from the Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature, University at Albany, State University of New York, 1400 Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12222 ($7.00) and through the ERIC Clearinghouse on Reading and Communication Skills, Indiana University, Smith Research Center, Suite 150, Bloomington, IN 47408-2698. ED 315 765 -----
Alan C. Purves is a Director of the Center for the Learning and Teaching of Literature, University at Albany. ----- This publication was prepared with funding from the Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education, under contract no. RI88062001. Contractors undertaking such projects under government sponsorship are encouraged to express freely their judgment in professional and technical matters. Points of view or opinions, however, do not necessarily represent the official view or opinions of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement
Title: Testing Literature: The Current State of Affairs. ERIC Digest.
Descriptors: Critical Reading; Evaluation Criteria; * Evaluation Methods; * Evaluation Problems; * Literature Appreciation; Secondary Education; State Standards; Student Needs; * Test Validity
Identifiers: Aesthetic Reading; ERIC Digests
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