When I was a graduate student at the University of Kansas, I made some extra money as a test scorer with NCS scoring the portions of standardized tests which could not be scored by the scanner. This involved short answer sections of a math exam and the essay portion of writing exams. The contract I signed stated that I could not divulge any information about the test or the essays, but I can say that not all writing prompts are created equal. This prompt from the Washington State Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) has to be the worst writing prompt I have ever seen.
While looking out the window one day at school, you notice the principal flying in the air. In several paragraphs, write a story telling what happens. — Bloomberg
Nine year old Tyler Stoken of Central Park Elementary School seemed to think so as well. He had always been instructed to write about the first thing that entered his mind on such tests. The first thing he thought of, however, was his principal as a witch. He thought this was mean, so he left the answer blank.
Under normal conditions, a student may be encouraged to fill in a blank item or asked why he left it blank. But under the intense pressure of No Child Left Behind’s testing component, conditions are not normal. Instead, he was harassed by multiple school personnel including the principal. He was told that his refusal to comply would bring down the performance of the whole school. He was suspended for five days and principal Olivia McCarthy told him, “Good job, bud, you’ve ruined it for everyone in the school, the teachers and the school.” That is a lot of pressure to put on a fourth grader for refusing to answer a question, whether out of defiance, writer’s block or, in this case, not wanting to call his principal a witch.
The note his mother received, dated May 6, 2005, stated, “The fact that Tyler chose to simply refuse to work on the WASL after many reasonable requests is none other than blatant defiance and insubordination.”
“He liked his principal before this,” Amanda Wolfe, Tyler’s mother, said. “He cried. He didn’t understand why she’d done this to him.” Now he is shyer, is afraid of tests and is doing poorer in all his classes. His mother says he blows up at the drop of a hat.
Juanita Doyon, director of Mothers Against WASL, says, “They took a student who loved his school and crushed his spirit. We’ve elevated test scores to be the most important part of school. The principal and teachers are so pressured by the test that they’ve lost good sense in dealing with children.”