Sara Holbrook had no idea that the fate of Texas students, teachers, and school administrators rested on her keystrokes.
Holbrook is a poet and educator in Cleveland, Ohio, and years after the publication of a 1998 collection of her poems, she discovered that two of her works—one in 2013 and another in 2014— were licensed to be used on standardized tests for middle school students attending public schools in Texas.
The poet found the questions on the tests absurd. In an op-ed in The Huffington Post on Jan. 4, she dissects each question to express her dismay at their opacity, and to challenge their efficacy in assessing students’ reading skills.
One question about Holbrook’s poem “Midnight” asked why the author used a stanza break—a break which was not, according to Holbrook, even printed correctly. Holbrook writes that she added the stanza break to show a pause in how she reads the poem aloud, an answer which was not among the options given. “What does this prove about a kid’s reading ability?” says Holbrook to Quartz. “Not anything!”
Another set of questions, about the poem “A Real Case,” asks students why Holbrook used capitalization:
What is the most likely reason that the poet uses capitalization in line 6?
A) To highlight a problem the speaker experiences
B) To stress the speaker’s expectations for tomorrow
C) To indicate that the speaker’s condition happens unexpectedly
D) To show the speaker’s excitement about an upcoming event
Here’s Holbrook’s facetious response:
Could be A. All caps is a way to highlight a fact, right? I guess I wanted to stress the fact that the feeling belongs to TODAY, but maybe the answer is B. Let’s see, today is not tomorrow, could be that. But climbing into the test maker’s mind, I’m guessing they want the answer C. But here’s the thing: I remember adding the ALL CAPS during revision. Was it to highlight the fact it arrived today or was it to indicate that it happened unexpectedly? Not sure. Move on, lots to cover.
“I think any question that goes to an author’s intent,” says Holbrook, “unless you’ve talked to the author, is fiction!”
These kinds of questions, she says, create a guessing game for students that teaches them little about poetic analysis and creates undo pressure to find a “correct” interpretation. Authorial intent, when a reader searches for clues in a text to guess what the author intended, is valid, she says, but in a discussion or in an argument, not on a multiple-choice exam.
Of course it’s not feasible for the test makers to consult all the living authors cited on exams. The Texas Education Agency, which develops the tests, said in a statement, “Professional item writers, many of whom are former or current Texas educators, develop items based on the reporting categories and the item guidelines.”
Holbrook first learned about the use of her poem last spring after the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness (STAAR) was published and publicly released as sample material for future exams. A Texas teacher contacted her and invited her to speak to her students about how she wrote the questions they were using as prep material. It was the first time she heard her poems were being used in exams.
In the US, standardized assessment exams like STAAR usually differ by state, and are used to rate schools and staff. Although STAAR is developed by a government agency, for-profit publishers, like Pearson in this case, are contracted to administer exams. According to Holbrook, Pearson paid $350 for each of her poems. Half that amount went to her and half went to her publisher, Boyds Mills Press, which is owned by Highlights.