Poet can’t answer test questions on own poem

Sara Holbrook, a prolific author and poet, discovered that two of her poems had been used on the Texas state assessment in language arts, known as the STAAR test. But when she tried to answer the questions that were released with the test preparation materials, she couldn’t, she writes in the Huffington Post.

One of the poems used, “A Real Case,” she says, was one of her “most neurotic” poems. It reads, in part:

I’m just down with a sniffly case
of sudden-self-loathing-syndrome.

TODAY!
It hit like a thwop of mashed potatoes
snapped against a plate,
an unrequested extra serving
of just-for-now-self-hate.

She writes that this poem was used on the 2014 Grade 7 STAAR Reading Test. But of all the poems she’s written, she can’t for the life of her figure out why that one was selected for a middle school test. As if kids need to read about self-loathing and self-hate on test day.

“I apologize to those kids. I apologize to their teachers,” she writes. “Boy howdy, I apologize to the entire state of Texas. I know the ′90s were supposed to be some kind of golden age, but I had my bad days and, clearly, these words are the pan drippings of one of them.”

But when it came to the questions, her eyes glazed over, she wrote. One question asks, “What is the most likely reason that the poet uses capitalization in (the line, TODAY!)?”

The choices are (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, or (D) To show the speaker’s excitement about an upcoming event.

“Climbing into the test-maker’s mind,” she writes, “I’m guessing they want the answer C.”

It’s interesting that the question asks students to speculate on the reason why this poet put “today” in all caps, and she herself thinks (A) and (B) would be good answers, too, if any of these answers are really good.

“Here’s the thing,” she reflects. “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?” She just can’t be sure, which casts doubt on the validity of the question. If tests have too many invalid questions, the test itself is invalid—a waste of students’ time and the taxpayers’ money.

Basically, “any test that questions the motivations of the author without asking the author is a big baloney sandwich. Mostly test makers do this to dead people who can’t protest.”

But those dead poets are just as likely as Ms Holbrook was to judge these questions invalid after careful consideration as the creator of the subject matter on which they’re based. Invalid questions don’t contribute to the validity of a test.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.