Literacy: Assessable or Inconclusive?

I just finished teaching a literacy course, called “Intensive Reading.” I think of this class like an intensive yoga workshop that focuses on building our practices slowly but effectively. The students in this course have been placed in my class because they have not met CUNY’s reading and writing proficiency exams—the City’s entrance and also summative assessments. On the first day of class, after we go over the syllabus, a student usually asks “when do we take the ACT?” Or, someone will nervously ask, a bit later in the module, “this is great and all, but how is any of this going to help me pass the test?” Ah, THE test–the barrier between my students and their futures. The one that stops them from getting a good job, from making more money to feed their kids, from paying their rent, from transferring to another college or from helping their mothers and fathers—the one that tells them their not “college ready.”

I try to address this question as early in the semester as possible, so they know who I am and what I’m here to do. I surely announce that I won’t be doing any test prep with them. This startles them. They sigh, they look scared, and some look angry and venomous because what they hear, is me saying I won’t help them, while they feel desperate and stuck. “Do you want to pass a test? Or do you want to become better readers?” I ask. They look frustrated and sneer at me like I’m full of it. I say, “Seriously! Do you want to pass this test because you did a bunch of practice tests and memorized the format and learned a few context clues—by doing the same thing, every day, for six weeks? Or, do you want to pass the test because your reading has improved, and also because you’ve learned a few things that might help you do well your other college courses?”

Now, reading… Reading is a strange area to teach. I think it is one of the most difficult skills to assess and monitor. How can anyone who is not the actual person really know if their reading is getting stronger? Reading is such a personal practice, where meanings and interpretations are case specific, culturally specific, personally driven—there really aren’t many right or wrong answers. So, when their given a multiple choice test, as a summative assessment, at the end of our term, I pray that my methods will transcend this particular kind of test (even if I do have some theoretical and experiental evidence to defend my choices). Will meaning making and engaging with the text help them find the “right” answer? Have the self-assessment reflections helped them with their ability to rationalize the “best” answer?

At the end of every semester, I ask my students to complete a meta-survey, in which they are asked to remember their reading experience and the strategies they used while taking the ACT Reading exam. One question I ask, “What strategies will you take with you to your other courses?” When I read responses like, “reread,” “read slowly,” “annotate,” “ask questions,” “pay attention to punctuation” and “draw inferences, cause that’s my thing now,” from both those who passed and from those who did not pass, I believe it’s been a successful semester.