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Maybe Some Children's Authors Need a Ferocious Kick on Both Shins

Publication Date: 2010-04-12

NOTE: This list of outrage is far from complete. I have presented the following data at several conferences, both NCTE and IRA, and I have called for teachers to launch a campaign to inform authors (and those holding title to authors' works) about how their work is being employed for a terrible assault on children. The reaction? Silence.

Bumping into Nikki Grimes at an NCTE conference, I tried to talk to her. She brushed me off, and I went back to my hotel room and cried. Maybe the next time I'll take a page from the little girl who confronted Laurie Lee and kick her instead.

As you read which authors' works appear on which tests, remember that in many cases elementary schoolers' advancement to the next grade depends on a passing score, as does a high schooler's diploma. And a high schooler taking a Retest has already failed at least once.

Imagine the literature mining that will emerge from the tests that will inevitably travel with the Common Core Standards, the standards our professional organizations refuse to denounce. And note: you are only seeing a smidgen of the outrage here I'm not listing the works of Emerson, George Eliot, excerpts from The Iliad. and so on.
Sample: Virginia Standards of Learning Assessments, Spring 2001 End of Course English
from "Nature" by Ralph Waldo Emerson

"Nature never wears a mean appearance" is an example of—

a) metaphor
b) irony
c) symbolism
d) personification

Think of the test prep you'd have to endure so you could answer as though your diploma depended on it.

Also Note: Many test makers keep tests secret, even from the teachers giving them, so we have no way of knowing the breadth of literature being plundered.

The other complication is that some test makers, notably CTB McGraw-Hill us pseudo literature written by writers-for hire, opening up another whole can of worms. (I actually met an item writer at my local post office--and restrained myself from kicking him in the shins.) But that's another issue. This commentary concerns itself with popular authors who let their work be misused to beat up on children.

I have included a few items, not written by children's authors--because they show the amount of cultural capital that is required to have a clue. For example, should a Massachusetts high school diploma depend on being able to understand a Roger Ebert interview with James Cameron?

Put Jerry Spinelli's name in a Google search and you get this, a sample of what 7th graders were told was due the first day of school in 2008. It includes this direction: Write an MCAS-style 3-paragraph open response to answer the following Writing Prompt:
In sixth grade, we spent a lot of time studying characters' traits and how their traits affect their lives. In the novel you just completed [over the summer], what is one trait of the main character?

Include specific and relevant details from the text to support your answer.

I wish other researchers would take this up. I wish teachers would help by sending me information.

Letter to The Times, London, May 22, 1997
Reminiscence of Laurie Lee


Your obituary of Laurie Lee told the bitter-sweet tale of Laurie going unrecognized in his own village of Slad-- "Excuse us, could you tell us where Laurie Lee is buried?"

There was however one occasion on which he was recognised.

As Laurie told us himself at the Chelsea Arts Blub one evening: "As I was approached by a little girl of about 9 or 10 who asked me if I were Laurie Lee. I said that I was, whereupon she said: 'Were it you what wrote that poem teacher made us learn by 'eart?' I said with modest pride: 'Yes, I expect so.' The girl, taking careful and deliberate aim, then kicked me ferociously on both shins before running off as fast as her her little legs could carry her."

Yours sincerely,

Christopher J. McManus
Chelsea Arts Club, London

I hope the many popular authors who have let their works be bastardized, even criminalized, by high stakes test manufacturers might heed this warning. I'd like to start a national campaign--on behalf of children--aimed at kicking them in both shins.

  • David A. Adler, MCAS 2002 Grade 3, A Picture Book of Benjamin Franklin

  • Mitch Albom, MCAS Fall 2001 Grade 10 Retest
    "Margarito and the Five Miracles"

  • Lloyd Alexander, MCAS 2006 Grade 5, "The Visitors"

  • Julia Alvarez, MCAS Grade 7, 2001, "Dusting";
    TAKS Study Guide: A Student and Family Guide to Exit Level English, "Hold the Mayonnaise";

  • Maya Angelou, Arkansas ACTAAP, 11th grade, "Getups"; California H. S. Exit Examination 2002, "A Day Away"; MCAS Spring 2003, Grade 7, "I Love the Look of Words; MCAS Fall 2001 Grade 10 Retest "Those Who Really Know Teach”; MCAS Spring 2000 Grade 8, "Complaining"; NY State Grade 7 "I Love the Look of Words"; Ohio Graduation Test "Caged Bird";

    But a bird that stalks
    down his narrow cage
    can seldom see through
    his bars of rage (stanza 2)

    Which of the following best describes the effect of the metaphor in the stanza above?
    It explains that the bird that is trapped may

    A. break the bars that confine it.
    B. not hope to see the outside world.
    C. soon grow to accept the situation.
    D. be consumed by its own anger.

    Ohio Graduation Test 2003, "Caged Bird" by Maya Angelou

  • Russell Baker, MCAS 2003 Retest, Growing Up; NY State Regents June 2004, Growing Up; FCAT Grade 10, Growing Up

  • Rick Bass, Texas TAKS 2003 Grade 10, “"On Willow Creek"

  • Byrd Baylor, California Standards Test Grade 10, “I'm In Charge of Celebrations"; Mississippi SATP English II, "I'm In Charge of Celebrations"

  • Shonto Begay, California High School Exit Exam 2006, "Early Spring"

  • William Bennett, MCAS 2001 Grade 8, "Dolley Madison Saves the National Pride," from The Book of Virtues, MCAS 2001 Grade 7, "Abraham Lincoln Denies a Loan"

  • Elizabeth Bishop, MCAS Fall 2001 Grade 10 Retest, "Manners"

  • Sample
    MCAS Fall 2001 Retest
    MANNERS by Elizabeth Bishop

    In the sentence in lines 9-10, "Then we overtook a boy we knew/with his big pet crow on his shoulder," what is the direct object of the verb "overtook"?
    a) boy
    b) pet
    c) crow
    d) shoulder
    (Only high stakes test item writers refer to lines from poems as "sentences.")

  • Jan Brett, Ohio Fall 2003 Grade 3, Annie and the Wild Animals

  • Gwendolyn Brooks, MCAS 2001 Grade 7,  from Maud Martha; MCAS Spring 2006 Grade 10  Retest,   from Maud  Martha

  • Grace Butcher, Minnesota Comprehensive Assess. Grade 7, "Crow is Walking" from Best American Poetry 2000

  • Betsy Byars, MCAS Grade 3 2006 "Munchkin" from My Dog My Hero; MCAS Grade 4 2008 The Midnight Fox

  • Stephanie Calmenson and Joanna Cole, Ohio Fall 2004 Grade 3, "Ring! Ring!"

  • Truman Capote, MCAS Spring 2002 Grade 10, In Cold Blood

  • Sample
    MCAS Spring 2002
    In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

    The phrase, "a white cluster of grain elevators rising as gracefully as Greek temples," contains an example of
    a) irony
    b) allegory
    c) simile
    d) hyperbole

  • Sandra Cisneros, MCAS 2003 Spring 10th Grade, "Four Skinny Trees" from The House on Mango Street; MCAS 2004 Retest, "Eleven"

  • Andrei Codrescu, Ohio Graduation Test 2003, from "Road Scholar"

  • Billy Collins, MCAS 2009 10th Grade Retest, "The Lanyard" from The Trouble with Poetry

  • Sample
    She gave me life and milk from her breasts, / and I gave her a lanyard.

    What do the lines emphasize?
    A. the mother's regret upon receiving the lanyard
    B. the speaker's confusion about the uses of a lanyard
    C. the strained relationship between the speaker and his mother
    D. the inequality between the mother’s love and the speaker's gift

  • Robert Cormier, Virginia 2004 Core l, "The Year I Drove Through the Car Wash"

  • Roald Dahl, MCAS Spring 2006 Grade 6, "Chocolates" from Boy; MCAS 2006 Grade 4, from Matilda

  • Margaret Davidson, MCAS Spring 2003, Grade 4, I Have a Dream

  • Paula Danziger, Arkansas Grade 4 Amber Brown Goes Fourth

  • Tomie dePaola, MCAS Spring 2002 Grade 3, from Book of Poems

  • James Dickey, Oregon Benchmark 3 Grade 8, from Deliverance

  • Kate DiCamillo, Michigan MEAP 2003 Grade 4
    Because of Winn-Dixie; MCAS 2006 Grade 4, Because of Winn-Dixie

  • Roger Ebert, MCAS Spring 2003 Grade 10, "Interview with James Cameron," from Roger Ebert’s Movie Yearbook 1999

  • Gretel Ehrlich, California Grade 11, "The Solace of Open Spaces"

  • Louise Erdrich, California Standards Test Grade 10, "Skunk Dreams"

  • Paul Fleischman, MCAS 2004 Grade 4, "Gonzolo"; Texas TAKS Exit Level 2005 "Amir"

  • Kristine Franklin, MCAS 2002 Grade 4, "Clam Tide"

  • Thomas Friedman, Ohio Graduation Test 2005, "My Favorite Teacher"; Michigan High School 2004, "My Favorite Teacher"

  • Robert Frost, MCAS Spring 2000 Grade 10, "Acquainted with the Night"

  • Sample
    And further still at an unearthly height
    One luminary clock against the sky

    "luminary" means
    A. solitary.
    B. towering.
    C. glowing.
    D. mysterious.

  • Jean Craighead George, MCAS Spring 2000 Grade 4 "I Hole Up in a Snowstorm" from My Side of the Mountain

  • Gail Gibbons, Ohio Grade 3 Fall 2004, Rabbits, Rabbits and More Rabbits

  • Mel Glenn, Maryland MCPS Grade 10, "Paul Hewitt" from Class Dismissed II: More High School Poems

  • Nikki Grimes, MCAS Grade 4, 2008, "What Johnny Told Me

  • Donald Hall, MCAS Retest, Fall 2002, "Oxcart Man" from The New Yorker

  • Earl Hammer, Jr, Oregon CIM 2001-02 Grade 10, "The Confrontation," from The Homecoming

  • Lorraine Hansberry, MCAS 2003 Grade 10, A Raisin in the Sun

  • Robert Hayden, California Standards Test Grade 10, "Those Winter Sundays"; Virginia SOL ASSESSMENTS, Spring 2001 "Those Winter Sundays" See discussion of test questions here.

  • Karen Hesse, MCAS Fall 2006 Grade 5, "Debts" and "First Rain," from Out of the Dust;
    Maryland MCPS Grade 10 2003, "Dust and Rain" from Out of the Dust

  • Felice Holman, Washington WASL 2002 Grade 4, "They’re Calling" from At the Top of My Voice and Other Poems

  • Khaled Hosseini, MCAS March 2007 Retest, The Kite Runner

  • Wade Hudson, Indiana ISTEP 2004, from Five Brave Explorers; MCAS 2003 Grade 3 from Five Brave Explorers

  • Langston Hughes, Delaware Grade 10, "Daylight in Alabama"; New York Regents August 2006, "In Time of Silver Rain'; MCAS 2006 Grade 7, "Aunt Sue's Stories"; MCAS 2001 Grade 8, "Summer Night";

  • Johanna Hurwitz, MCAS 2006 Grade 3, "The Recital" from Leaving Footprints

  • Gish Jen, MCAS 2005 July 2005 Retest, "Helen, Far From Home" from Typical American

  • D. B. Johnson, MCAS Grade 3 Practice Test Henry Hikes to Fitchburg (Some items make me want to kill. This is one of them. I love this book--or I did until I found out the author let it be mutilated this way. )

  • M. E. Kerr, Texas TAKS Grade 10, "Sunny Days and Sunny Nights", from Connections: Short Stories, ed. Donald R. Gallo

  • Martin Luther King, Jr., Georgia H. S. Graduation Test, "I Have a Dream"

  • Barbara Kingsolver, Maryland MCPS Grade 10, from High Tide in Tucson

  • W. P. Kinsella, MCAS March 2004 Retest, "Joy in Dyersville"

  • Ruth Kraus, Mississippi Grade 2, The Carrot Seed

  • Sample
    Mississippi Grade 2
    The Carrot Seed by Ruth Krauss, illus. Crockett Johnson

    Choose the word from the story that has the same vowel sound as the word dream.

    A) bread
    B) came
    C) weeds
    D) kept

  • Kathleen Krull, California Exit Exam, The Fastest Woman in the World; Oregon Test Grade 5, from The Other Side

  • Patricia Lauber, MCAS Spring 2006 Grade 6, "An Island is Born" from This Restless Earth

  • Arnold Lobel, MCAS 2003 Grade 3, "The Hen and the Apple Tree," from Fables

  • Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, MCAS March 2007 Retest, "The Challenge of Thor"; Georgia High School Graduation Test, "Rainy Day"

  • Thomas Lux, FCAT 2005 Grade 10, Tarantulas on the Lifebuoy from Half- Promised Land

  • Don Marquis, Minnesota 2003 Grade 7, "the lesson of the moth" from archy and mehitabel

  • Patricia C. McKissack MCAS 2004 Grade 3, Now That I Have a Green Thumb

  • Jane Medina, MCAS 2006 Grade 4 "The Photograph" from My Name Is Jorge: On Both Sides of the River

  • Herman Melville, Ohio Graduation Test 2007, "Bartleby the Scrivener"

  • Edna St. Vincent Millay, California Exit Exam "The Courage That My Mother Had"; Maryland MCPS Grade 10, "The Courage That My Mother Had"; Washington WASL Grade 8, "The Courage That My Mother Had:

  • A. A. Milne, MCAS 2006 Grade 3, "Waiting at the Window" from Now We Are Six

  • M. Scott Momaday, California 2005 Grade 8, from House Made of Dawn

  • Naomi Shihab Nye, New York Regents 2005, "Morning Glory" from Fue; Minnesota Comprehensive Assessments II Grade 5 , "Every Cat Had a Story"; Texas TAKS 2004 Grade 10, "Newcomers in a Troubled Land" from Never in a Hurry

  • Kristine O’Connell, Maryland Grade 8, "School Photographer"

  • Sharon Olds, New York Regents January 2004, "High School Senior" from The Wellspring

  • Mary Oliver, Maryland MCPS Grade 10, "John Chapman" from American Primitive

  • Gary Paulsen, Oregon CIM 2001-02 Grade 10, from Woodsong; Oregon Benchmark 3 Grade 8, "The Haymeadow"; Kentucky 2004 Grade 7, excerpt from Brian's Winter; Texas TAKS 2003 Grade 10, from Brian's Return

  • Richard Peck, New York Regents June 2004, "The Electric Summer" from Time Capsule

  • Michael Pollan, MCAS 2009 Grade 10 Retest, "The Potato" from The Botany of Desire

  • Chaim Potok, MCAS 2009 Grade 10 Retest My Name Is Asher Lev

  • Jack Prelutsky, MCAS 2001 Grade 4, "Michael Built a Bicycle"; MCAS 2002 Grade 4, "December Days are Short"; MCAS 2003 Grade 3, "The Pack Rat"; MCAS 2004, Grade 3 "The Snail"; Saskatchewan Grade 5 Reading Assessment, "Michael Built a Bicycle"

  • Samples
    MCAS 2001 Grade 4
    "Michael Built a Bicycle"

    1. Why is the first word in each stanza capitalized?
    a) They are proper nouns.
    b) Each begins a sentence.
    c) A section of the poem ends.
    d) A rhyme pattern begins.

    Saskatchewan Grade 5 Reading Assessment

    1. What technique does the poet us to describe the bicycle?
    a) surprise
    b) explanation
    c) questioning
    d) exaggeration

  • Bonnie Pryor, Washington WASL Grade 4, from The Plum Tree War

  • David Quammen, Oregon CIM 2001-02 Grade 10, "Something to Crow About" from Natural Acts

  • Anna Quindlen, MCAS March 2007 Retest, "Melting Pot," from Living Out Loud

  • Theodore Roethke, MCAS 2005 Grade 10, "Night Journey"

  • Cynthia Rylant, Illinois ISAT, "An Angel for Solomon Singer"; Maryland Grade 10 2003, "Checkouts," from A Couple of Kooks and Other Stories About Love

  • William Saroyan Ohio Graduation Test 2007, "At the Telegraph Office," excerpted from The Human Comedy; Texas TAKS 2003 Grade 11, The Miraculous Phonograph Record; MCAS Grade 10 Retest 2009 "The Hummingbird That Lived Through Winter" from My Kind of Crazy, Wonderful People: Seventeen Stories and a Play

  • William Shakespeare, MCAS 2006 Grade 10, from "Life of Henry V"; MCAS Spring 2002, Grade 10, "The Seven Ages of Man" from "As You Like It"
    MCAS 2001 Grade 10, Sonnet 116; MCAS 2004 Retest, from "A Midsummer Night's Dream"
    (with 17 footnotes explaining words); Kentucky KCCT, from "The Tragedy of Julius Caesar"

  • Neil Simon, MCAS November 2006 Retest, excerpt from The Sunshine Boys

  • Seymour Simon, Washington WASL 2004 Grade 4, "The Gray Whale in Winter," excerpt from Winter Across America

  • Jane Smiley New York Regents 2006, from Barn Blind

  • Cathy Song, California Standards Test Grade 10, "The Grammar of Silk" See discussion of test questions here.

    California 2004 Grade 10, "The Grammar of Silk"

    What is the meaning of the phrase “the stone tablets of the latest pattern books”?
    The pattern books

    a) look as if they are made of stone.
    b) are regarded as objects of great authority.
    c) have been passed down through the generations.
    d) are so thick that they are difficult to carry.

  • Gary Soto, MCAS 2006 Grade 5, "What Fernie Learned"; MCAS 2001 Grade 8, "The Inner Tube"; Ohio Graduation Test 2007, "Oranges"; Ohio Graduation Test 2006, "The Grandfather"; from A Summer Life; Ohio Graduation Test 2005, "The Bike," from A Summer Life

  • Sample

    I didn’t believe Mom. Once she had said that pointing at rainbows caused freckles, and after a rain had moved in and drenched the streets, after the sparrows flitted onto the lawn, a rainbow washed over the junkyard and reached the dark barrels of Coleman pickle. I stood at the window, looking out, amazed and devious, with the devilish horns of my butch haircut standing up. From behind the window, I let my finger slowly uncurl like a bean plant rising from earth. I uncurled it, then curled it back and made a fist. I should remember this day, I told myself.

    1. What is the intended effect of the description in paragraph 3, that the boy let his finger slowly uncurl "like a bean plant rising from earth"?

    A. He cautiously pointed up at the rainbow.
    B. He defiantly pointed up at the rainbow.
    C. He triumphantly pointed up at the rainbow.
    D. He mischievously pointed up at the rainbow.

    from Gary Soto, "The Bike," Ohio Graduation Test 2005

  • Eileen Spinelli, MCAS 2001 Grade 3, "Apartment Building"

  • Jerry Spinelli, MCAS Spring 2006 Grade 6, Stargirl Fast-R Formative Assessments of Student Thinking in Reading Star Girl; MCAS 2008 Grade 4, "Never the Monkey" from Knots in my Yo-Yo String

  • John Steinbeck, MCAS Spring 2003, Grade 7, "The Gift" from The Red Pony; MCAS 2001 Grade 10, The Grapes of Wrath

  • Sample
    MCAS 2001 Grade 10, The Grapes of Wrath

    The sentence "From her position as healer, her hands had grown sure and cool and quiet; and faultless in judgment as a goddess" begins with

    A. a split infinitive.
    B. an independent clause.
    C. a prepositional phrase.
    D. a gerund phrase.

  • Robert Louis Stevenson, MCAS 2008, Grade 8, Kidnapped

  • Judith Viorst, MCAS 2001 Grade 3, "Since Hanna Moved Away," from If I Were In Charge of the World and Other Worries

  • Eudora Welty MCAS Spring 2002 Retest, "The Little Store"

  • Bailey White, Mississippi SATP English II , "Turkeys," from Mamma Makes Up Her Mind and Other Dangers of Southern Living; Virginia STANDARDS OFLEARNING ASSESSMENTS Spring 2001
    End of Course English, "Someday the Old Junker Will Be a Neat Car Again," from Mama Makes Up Her Mind

  • William Wordsworth, Maine 2002 Grade 11, "I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud"

  • Sample
    William Wordsworth

    I WANDERED lonely as a cloud
    That floats on high o'er vales and hills,
    When all at once I saw a crowd,
    A host, of golden daffodils;
    Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
    Fluttering and dancing in the breeze. . . .
    A poet could not but be gay,
    In such a jocund company.

    1. In line 16, what does the word jocund mostly likely mean?
    A. melancholy
    B. thoughtful
    C. happy
    D. rhythmic

    For oft, when on my couch I lie
    In vacant or in pensive mood,
    They flash upon that inward eye
    Which is the bliss of solitude;
    And then my heart with pleasure fills,
    And dances with the daffodils.

    Explain the meaning of the last stanza. Include specific details from the poem to support your answer.

  • Laurence Yep, New York Grade 7 2006, "Gold Rush Country," from Journal of Wong Ming-Chung

  • Jane Yolen, MCAS Grade 4, Spring 2003, "Homework", MCAS Grade 8, Spring 2006, Letting Swift River Go; Missouri Assessment Program Grade 3, "Homework" (Jane Yolen told the Boston Globe that her 8-year-old granddaughter was in private school "to avoid the MCAS" but that it doesn't bother her that her own work is used on the MCAS. In her words, "Teachers use my work all the time."

  • Charlotte Zolotow, MCAS 2004 Grade 4, People

  • So what do we do about this? Do we continue to allow every aspect of children's lives in schools be plundered?

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