Education

Okla. fifth-grade writing test discriminates against low-income students

 

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Published 04/15/2019 

OPINION | By Nehemiah D. Frank 

Being a fluent typist is a challenge in and of itself.

For the 2019 Oklahoma State Testing Program (OSTP) assessments, 5th-graders for the first time in the state’s history are required to type their essays online.

As a millennial, growing up in the digital era, I completely understand the need to push our students towards attaining such vital technical skill-sets.

However, the problem that I have with fifth-graders taking their English Language Arts (ELA) writing test online, coupled with having to type their first ‘writing sample,’ revolves around the issue of our quest for more equity in education. 

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These are just a few of the heartbreaking stories that are beginning to unfold. 

1 in 5 Oklahoma students lives below the poverty line, meaning they have less access to opportunities that help them build those technical skills needed to perform well on their state exams.

Students from middle-class or more affluent families will test better on the essay writing test because they have more resources that allow them to do so. 

The issue of equity negatively impacts districts that can’t afford newer computers, students who come from low-income families — who often don’t have computers and internet access in the home, and there’s the mere fact that most elementary schools don’t offer typing classes.

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Most fifth-grade teachers are focused on teaching the mechanics of writing and reinforcing it in their students’ paragraphs and essays, which usually is done by hand and not on a computer. 

I am of the opinion that if the Oklahoma Department of Education is keen on testing our fifth-grade students’ writing ability online, then they should allocate more funding for typing classes and instructors. This will make the test more equitable for all students. 

Currently, the fifth-grade writing test actually feels more like a fifth-grade typing test.

Furthermore, a student’s eyes may not be accustomed to spotting their personal typos on a computer screen. 

Having taught grades 5th through 8th, coupled with being the founder and editor-in-chief of an online newspaper, I consider my eyes more trained than the average person; nevertheless, I’m not perfect. I still miss my own and others’ grammatical errors. Even grammar apps are prone to missing advanced writing errors. 

The average attention span for a 10-year-old is between 20 – 50 minutes. This means that the average attention span for the typical fifth-grader hovers around 35 minutes.

I have watched students get frustrated and give up after an hour of meticulously punching keys one finger-stroke at a time in order to get their essays completed.

Kids that are unfamiliar with the symbols on a keyboard and a blank computer screen may find the whole experience of having to type their essays on the computer completely overwhelming. 

Fifth-graders shouldn’t be walking out of their ELA writing test feeling defeated because that’s not healthy for our Oklahoma students. 

As a former elite gymnast and coach, I’ve learned that mental toughness is one of the secrets to success in the sport of gymnastics and in life.

I’ve used that skill-set to teach my students to go inside themselves and use their mental toughness to push through difficult tasks they otherwise would have thought impossible to achieve.

Therefore, I know that the majority of my students are going to perform exceptionally well on their writing test, despite not having the access as many of the more affluent school districts and communities have. 

One Oklahoma test proctor contacted me and gave me their raw, honest experience  about the writing test. She wanted to remain anonymous. 

“I am so glad you brought this up,” referring to my Facebook post. “I volunteer as a proctor in OKCPS. I know I’m not supposed to speak on any of this but I left that school so defeated for these babies,” she said. 

“I was telling my husband about it and got choked up,” she explained.

“They had no idea how to use the keyboard efficiently. Didn’t know how to use shift, the amount of misspelled words and sentences with no spaces between the words was baffling. It took some of them over 2 hours to complete the section. Even adults would be no good after 2 hours of straight writing. It was such a mess, and I literally could do nothing to help them.” 

She then went on to explain, “Then I go to my kids’ school, who have chrome books that they use daily and practice the OREO strategy until they have it perfected. They can schedule time in the writing lab for assistance. They have an A+ fellow and IB teacher for Language Arts, etc. my point is… of course the kids at my son’s school and so many other Norman schools score higher. The circumstances are night and day. There is no comparison. It’s devastating because none of it is their fault. NONE OF IT!” 

I’ll admit that mental toughness helped my fifth-graders push through their writing test with methodically constructed essays, mostly. But I don’t consider myself the average teacher either.

I believe having all fifth-grade students take their writing assessment test online is a big problem that’s centered around equity.

It’s not an equitable test if low-income students with less resources have to compete with middle and higher-income students.


lip_9760-1Nehemiah D. Frank is the founder and Editor-in-Chief of The Black Wall Street Times and sits on the Editorial Community Advisory Board at the Tulsa World. He graduated from Harold Washington College in Chicago, IL, and earned a second degree in political science from Oklahoma State University. Nehemiah is a rising voice in America and an emerging leader in the educational justice and equity movement. He’s a motivational speaker and presented a TED Talk at the University of Tulsa in the spring of 2018. Nehemiah is also blogger at Education Post. He has been featured on NBC, Blavity, and Tulsa People.

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