Last weekend my students took their third practice ACT. This is an exciting time because they have finally had a few good weeks of ACT strategy and they are eager to see if their scores have improved. This is also an important time for me to figure out which students are understanding the material and which students need some extra attention. While most of my students seemed confident that they had at least improved a little on each section, they left the test with defeated looks on their faces after finishing the last section, the essay. After reading the prompt, it's not hard to see why my students felt this way.
The prompt goes:
"Most people enjoy having a yard so that they can design both the exterior and the interior of their homes. Some people prefer landscaping that is polished and controlled, with lush green lawns, carefully trimmed shrubs or bushes, and flowers that are replaced each season so that they remain fresh and colorful. Proponents of this type of landscaping believe that the visual design of a yard is the most important factor and that neighborhoods should have standard guidelines so that the area looks uniform and consistent. Opponents of polished landscaping believe that yards require a variety of treatments, based on factors such as the climate conditions of the region, and advocate for choices that incorporate water conservation, native species, and edible plants. In your opinion, should people follow standard landscaping guidelines that focus on a yard's visual design, or should they vary their landscaping design out of consideration for other factors like climate or conservation?"
As I see it, there are two main problems with this prompt:
1. We told our students that every prompt they would get on the ACT would have something to do with their lives as students, something they could relate to. We gave examples of debates surrounding school uniforms, year round schools, single sex education, serving fast food in the cafeteria, weighted grades, the list goes on. This prompt has nothing to do with the lives of the majority of high schoolers in this country and I'm pretty sure that most high schoolers would have no opinion on the issue whatsoever (unless you're one of my good friends who worked summers with a landscaping company).
2. This prompt certainly has no relevance or context for most low income or urban students- who may be living in housing without yards or might not have the income to afford landscaping. This is the issue I will be focussing on for the remainder of this post.
Most of my students qualify for free or reduced lunch and if they don't, they definitely make well under the average income for the state. The neighborhoods surrounding the school where I work have small yards, but, as far as I can tell, no neighborhood association regulating landscaping or anything else. When I think of neighborhood associations, I think of wealthy neighborhoods where the residents can afford to pay dues to have a council that puts on BBQs and gives gifts to the mailmen. That is certainly not the kind of neighborhood my students come from. For those who don't live in single family homes, they live in apartments or town homes without yards. Thus, this prompt brings up a concept that almost none of my students have any experience with.
In fact, quite a few of my students did not know what landscaping was- and this was true among my coworkers as well. In their essays we had students argue for having landscapes instead of yards or having a back yard, or what to put in your yard (think swimming pool and playground). It was clear that besides not having any personal experience with landscaping in their own yards, they had never even encountered the term.
To me this begged the question: 'is this a classist prompt??' And honestly, I believe the answer is yes. The definition of 'classist' is "biased based on social or economic class." For a writing prompt to be classist it would have to give an unfair advantage to those of a certain social or economic class. I believe this prompt does just that. If I had this prompt when I was taking the ACT (or SAT in my case), I would have had absolutely no trouble answering the prompt. Why? Because most if not all of the neighborhoods I lived in growing up had guidelines for landscaping. More than that, I'm pretty sure that for at least the last 13 years my family has had a LANDSCAPER. I grew up seeing drawings for new gardens in our yard, hearing about the installation of underground sprinklers, and watching my parents ask permission from neighborhood councils to put fences in my yard (and wouldn't you know they even cared about what material the fences were made out of). I grew up surrounded by this information because my parents had the expendable income to pay for everything that comes with landscaping and because we belonged in a social class that expected it of us.
Most of my students do not have the same exposure to landscaping as I did, giving them an unfair disadvantage when approaching this prompt. In the words of one of my co-workers: "they might as well have asked if hired help should be full time or part time or if neighborhoods should be gated or not!"- this prompt was clearly aimed towards a set of students with a certain life style, one which, from my knowledge, most urban low income students do not share.
It's incredibly frustrating to think that a standardized test, one which is supposed to put students on an even level regardless of their high school, background, religion, race, etc. can so blatantly give an advantage to some students over others. What's worse is that it is really difficult to help our students overcome this type of disadvantage. We can teach our students how to write a well structured essay, but we cannot give them life experiences they've never had- and when a whole prompt is based on such an experience, having it can make or break one's score.