The Big Idea, or Focus, Cross-Referenced to Basic Rules of Item Writing

What comes before preparation is intention, which we previously discussed here. Still, the concept of the Big Idea bears further exploration.

Let’s consider how we might approach this grade 4 standard from the CCSS, RL.4.2:

Determine a theme of a story, drama, or poem from details in the text; summarize the text.

This standard is passage-dependent; students read a story, poem, or play (or excerpts of the same) and then answer questions about what they read.

This standard requires two distinct subskills: determining a theme and summarizing text. 

Either may be assessed with multiple-choice, constructed-response, or technology-enhanced items, although I note that in an ideal world, we wouldn’t use multiple-choice for summarizing, but would instead ask students to create the summary. Again in that ideal world, it’s best if we provide the student with opportunities to demonstrate mastery of a particular skill by allowing the student to perform the skill; however, we often operate under constraints that exclude the ideal. That’s okay.

After we’ve read all of our ancillary support materials and have thoroughly acquainted ourselves with the story, poem, or play (for less experienced item writers and for all item writers without a strong background in literary analysis, I suggest making an outline of and annotating the passage in order to avoid the trap of writing superficial and repetitive items), we determine the theme(s). There may be more than one. Out of fairness, choose the strongest theme that is most clearly supported and most thoroughly developed in the passage. The theme may be stated explicitly or may be implied by the characters’ words and actions.

Here is our passage, “A Boy’s Song” by James Hogg.

    Where the pools are bright and deep,
Where the gray trout lies asleep,
Up the river and o'er the lea,
That's the way for Billy and me.

Where the blackbird sings the latest,
Where the hawthorn blooms the sweetest,
Where the nestlings chirp and flee,
That's the way for Billy and me.

Where the mowers mow the cleanest,
Where the hay lies thick and greenest,
There to trace the homeward bee,
That's the way for Billy and me.

Where the hazel bank is steepest,
Where the shadow falls the deepest,
Where the clustering nuts fall free.
That's the way for Billy and me.

Why the boys should drive away,
Little sweet maidens from the play,
Or love to banter and fight so well,
That's the thing I never could tell.

But this I know, I love to play,
Through the meadow, among the hay;
Up the water and o'er the lea,
That's the way for Billy and me.

We would probably use call-out boxes to define some of the vocabulary–“lea” and “nestling” stand out as words likely to interfere with student understanding.

If we’re writing a multiple-choice item, the stem will look like this:

What is a theme of the poem?

Or we might identify the poem only by its title (“What is a main theme of ‘A Boy’s Song’?”) if we plan to write another item about genre characteristics (“How does the reader know ‘A Boy’s Song’ is a poem?”).

Often at the lower grades, we use “theme” and “main idea” as synonyms; depending on curriculum, grade 4 students may not yet be familiar with the specific terms for narrative elements, and we don’t want to erect unnecessary obstacles for those students, so we might write a stem that looks like this:

What is a main idea of the story?

I prefer “a” rather than “the” in order to allow for variety in literary interpretation; we’d follow the client’s preference on this. In this case, a clear theme is the joy of spending time in nature. Now we have a stem and the correct response:

What is a theme of the poem?
A the joy of spending time in nature
B [TK]
C [TK]
D [TK]

Next we’d write three distractors (wrong answers). Each distractor should have a rationale–that is, each should embody a specific mistake or breakdown in comprehension or literary analysis that might hinder a student en route to determining the theme. The rule in item writing is that, given the evidence in the text, distractors must be “plausible but not possible.” The distractors should be clearly wrong to the student who is able to “determine a theme…from details in the text.”

Many clients require item writers to provide rationales or justifications for the wrong answer; I support this wholeheartedly as valuable practice for inexperienced item writers. Experienced item writers have rationales in their minds already, so it’s just a matter of typing them.

When we write the distractors, we must stay focused on our Big Idea. In order to do that, we’d consider the breakdowns that occur when students attempt to identify a theme. In order to do that, we’d think about the process of making meaning from text. We read the poem and step back and come up with the overarching meaning: the joy of spending time in nature. Then we think about how a student might falter in putting the pieces of the poem together to see that big picture. A student might get stuck on a detail of the poem, and mistake that for a theme. A student might confuse theme and subject. A student might focus too narrowly.

Next up: constructing plausible but not possible distractors.

What I’m reading: The Reivers by Faulkner and Imaginings of Sand by Andre Brinks.



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