I asked my students: “What did Natasha say about men walking on the moon?”

Chad had an answer. “She said it never happened. She told Toughboy that his teachers were lying, because it was impossible for men to walk on the moon.”

“Were you surprised by what she said?” This was the more important follow-up question, requiring inference and analysis.

“I wasn’t,” volunteered Carlotta. “Natasha always has something negative to say, especially when she doesn’t know the real answer.”

“Yeah,” added Loren, “and she really hates modern technology. I wasn’t surprised either.”

We were discussing Winter Camp by Kirkpatrick Hill. Elsewhere in my classroom, the other fifth grade students were preparing for their own reading group meetings. One boy, who was reading Call it Courage, had just Googled the longitude and latitude of the island Hikueru and was trying to locate it on our world map. Students with The Music of Dolphins were supposed to be reading independently, but Dallas and Andy had their heads together, whispering excitedly about the chapter where Mila breaks the TV with a chair. I should have been pleased with my students’ enthusiastic involvement with their literature. But instead, I was worried.

Were my current classroom activities adequately preparing students for the upcoming state test?

Every state in the country has its own set of assessments, mandated by the No Child Left Behind law. In Pennsylvania, we face the PSSAs, a daunting battery of tests composed of multiple choice and open-ended responses. The fifth grade test is disproportionately difficult, and more points are required to reach “proficiency” at this grade level than any other—including eleventh grade.

A person might think that any meaningful instruction provided in the classroom would help students score well on a test of reading skills. However, experience has shown me that children must practice with activities that greatly resemble the assessment in order to meet the testing standards. This is because the paper and pencil tasks do not really reflect what readers do with books on a daily basis. In real life we converse about books and learn from other readers — witness the proliferation of community book clubs and social networking sites such as Goodreads, Shelfari, and LibraryThing.

Real readers rarely answer questions in isolation for an anonymous and distant judge who offers no appeal.

It all comes down to your definition of literacy.

Our repeated test practice turns up plenty of potential trouble spots. Many of my students have had trouble with a PSSA practice item which asks: Identify the turning point in this passage. Support your answer with three examples from the text. Since there is only one turning point, students can’t fathom how to give three examples. In conversation, students can prove their understanding of “turning point,” but they are confused by the written prompt and do not score well on this exercise.

I also observe students stumped by terms used on the PSSA that don’t match the ones they learned in class. One English Language Learner was lost when the test asked for “characteristics” instead of “character traits.” Another student didn’t realize that the word “passage” meant the text. Talking to these students could have cleared up these problems and enabled them to show off their abilities. Too bad it violates test validity for me to clarify a question.

English Language Learners especially have it rough in Pennsylvania. The state allows them only one year before requiring that they take the Reading PSSA — and pass. Proficiency means being able to make inferences, identify text structure in a non-fiction passage, and distinguish between similes and metaphors. I’ve had the honor of teaching many highly intelligent, non-native English speakers, but none who could reach that level of expertise in a single year.

So, how do schools and teachers balance what we believe about reading with what gets tested? To be continued in Part Two …