Teachers Don’t Want All This Useless Data

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One of the most frustrating things I’ve ever been forced to do as a teacher is to ignore my students and concentrate instead on the data.

 

I teach 8th grade Language Arts at a high poverty, mostly minority school in Western Pennsylvania. During my double period classes, I’m with these children for at least 80 minutes a day, five days a week.

 

During that time, we read together. We write together. We discuss important issues together. They take tests. They compose poems, stories and essays. They put on short skits, give presentations, draw pictures and even create iMovies.

 

I don’t need a spreadsheet to tell me whether these children can read, write or think. I know.

 

Anyone who had been in the room and had been paying attention would know.

 

But a week doesn’t go by without an administrator ambushing me at a staff meeting with a computer print out and a smile.

 

Look at this data set. See how your students are doing on this module. Look at the projected growth for this student during the first semester.

 

It’s enough to make you heave.

 

I always thought the purpose behind student data was to help the teacher teach. But it has become an end to itself.

 

It is the educational equivalent of navel gazing, of turning all your students into prospective students and trying to teach them from that remove – not as living, breathing beings, but as computer models.

 

It reminds me of this quote from Michael Lewis’ famous book Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game:

 

“Intelligence about baseball statistics had become equated in the public mind with the ability to recite arcane baseball stats. What [Bill] James’s wider audience had failed to understand was that the statistics were beside the point. The point was understanding; the point was to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible; and that point, somehow, had been lost. ‘I wonder,’ James wrote, ‘if we haven’t become so numbed by all these numbers that we are no longer capable of truly assimilating any knowledge which might result from them.'”

 

The point is not the data. It is what the data reveals. However, some people have become so seduced by the cult of data that they’re blind to what’s right in front of their eyes.

 

You don’t need to give a child a standardized test to assess if he or she can read. You can just have them read. Nor does a child need to fill in multiple choice bubbles to indicate if he or she understands what’s been read. They can simply tell you. In fact, these would be better assessments. Doing otherwise, is like testing someone’s driving ability not by putting them behind the wheel but by making them play Mariocart.

 

The skill is no longer important. It is the assessment of the skill.

 

THAT’S what we use to measure success. It’s become the be-all, end-all. It’s the ultimate indicator of both student and teacher success. But it perverts authentic teaching. When the assessment is all that’s important, we lose sight of the actual skills we were supposed to be teaching in the first place.

 

The result is a never ending emphasis on test prep and poring over infinite pages of useless data and analytics.

 

As Scottish writer Andrew Lang put it, “He uses statistics as a drunken man uses lamp posts – for support rather than for illumination.”

 

Teachers like me have been pointing this out for years, but the only response we get from most lawmakers and administrators is to hysterically increase the sheer volume of data and use more sophisticated algorithms with which to interpret it.

 

Take the Pennsylvania Value Added Assessment System (PVAAS). This is the Commonwealth’s method of statistical analysis of students test scores on the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) and Keystone Exams, which students take in grades 3-8 and in high school, respectively.

 

It allows me to see:

  • Student scores on each test
  • Student scores broken down by subgroups (how many hit each 20 point marker)
  • Which subgroup is above, below or at the target for growth

 

But perhaps the most interesting piece of information is a prediction of where each student is expected to score next time they take the test.

 

How does it calculate this prediction? I have no idea.

 

That’s the kind of metric they don’t give to teachers. Or taxpayers, by the way. Pennsylvania has paid more than $1 billion for its standardized testing system in the last 8 years. You’d think lawmakers would have to justify that outlay of cash, especially when they’re cutting funding for just about everything else in our schools. But no. We’re supposed to just take that one on faith.

 

So much for empirical data.

 

Then we have the Classroom Diagnostic Tools (CDT). This is an optional computer-based test given three times a year in various core subjects.

 

If you’re lucky enough to have to give this to your students (and I am), you get a whole pile of data that’s supposed to be even more detailed than the PVAAS.

 

But it doesn’t really give you much more than the same information based on more data points.

 

I don’t gain much from looking at colorful graphs depicting where each of my students scored in various modules. Nor do I gain much by seeing this same material displayed for my entire class.

 

The biggest difference between the PVAAS and the CDT, though, is that it allows me to see examples of the kinds of questions individual students got wrong. So, in theory, I could print out a stack of look-a-like questions and have them practice endless skill and drills until they get them right.

 

And THAT’S education!

 

Imagine if a toddler stumbled walking down the hall, so you had her practice raising and lowering her left foot over-and-over again! I’m sure that would make her an expert walker in no time!

 

It’s ridiculous. This overreliance on data pretends that we’re engaged in programming robots and not teaching human beings.

 

Abstracted repetition is not generally the best tool to learning complex skills. If you’re teaching the times table, fine. But most concepts require us to engage students’ interests, to make something real, vital and important to them.

 

Otherwise, they’ll just go through the motions.

 

“If you torture the data long enough, it will confess,” wrote Economist Ronald Coase. That’s what we’re doing in our public schools. We’re prioritizing the data and making it say whatever we want.

 

The data justifies the use of data. And anyone who points out that circular logic is called a Luddite, a roadblock on the information superhighway.

 

Never mind that all this time I’m forced to pour over the scores and statistics is less time I have to actually teach the children.

 

Teachers don’t need more paperwork and schematics. We need those in power to actually listen to us. We need the respect and autonomy to be allowed to actually do our jobs.

 

Albert Einstein famously said, “Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.”

 

Can we please put away the superfluous data and get back to teaching?

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Why Teaching to the Test is Educational Malpractice

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Malpractice is defined as “careless, wrong, or illegal actions by someone (such as a doctor) who is performing a professional duty.”

In some fields it can get you arrested. In most it’s at least frowned upon.
In education, however, it’s encouraged.

In fact, as a teacher, you can be singled out, written up or even fired for refusing to engage in malpractice. You are bullied, cajoled and threatened into going along with practices that have been debunked by decades of research and innumerable case studies.

Take the all-too-common practice of teaching to the test.

Not only do students and teachers hate it, but the practice has been shown to actually harm student learning. Yet it is the number one prescription handed down from administrators and policymakers to bring up failing scores on high stakes standardized tests.

Never mind that those same test scores have likewise been proven to be invalid, racially and culturally biased and inextricably linked with parental income. When the only goal is raising student test scores, what’s a little malpractice between friends?

In this article, I will explain the top five reasons why this policy is harmful. But first, we need to define our terms. There is a multitude of practices that are sometimes called teaching to the test. What exactly are we talking about here?

Assessment expert W. James Popham provides a helpful distinction: “curriculum teaching” vs. “item teaching.” Curriculum teachers focus on the full body of knowledge and skills represented by test questions. For instance, if the test is expected to include questions about decimals, the teacher will cover the full range of knowledge and skills related to decimals so students understand what they are, know how to manipulate them, understand how to use them to solve more complex problems, and are able to communicate about them.

By contrast, item teaching involves narrowing instruction, organizing lessons around look-a-like questions that are taken directly from the test or represent the kinds of questions most likely to be found on the test. In this way, the teacher only provides the chunks of knowledge students are most likely to encounter on exams. For instance, item teachers might drill students on a certain set of vocabulary words that are expected to be assessed rather than employing instructional strategies that help students build a rich vocabulary that best contributes to strong reading comprehension.

To be clear, when we talk about teaching to the test, we’re talking about item teaching. I maintain that there is nothing wrong with curriculum teaching. In fact, that is the preferred method of educating. It is a best practice. The problem is when we resort to endless drills and give students innumerable questions of the exact type we expect to be on the test.

Here’s why item teaching is to be avoided:

1) It Makes the Tests Even More Invalid

As noted, standardized tests are terrible assessments. They do not properly or fairly assess intelligence or academics. However, whatever validity they have is further eroded when schools teach to the test.

The problem is this: if all you want to do is artificially raise test scores, teaching to the test is effective. It works. This is why middle class or wealthier families often pay to enroll their children in a test-prep course before their kids take or retake the SAT exam. It most likely will boost their children’s scores. However, it defeats the purpose of the test, which is to predict academic success in college. All it shows definitively is that these children come from families wealthy enough to provide private tutoring.

I say it “artificially” raises test scores because it is not connected with a similar increase in learning. Students don’t learn more about reading or math from test prep. They learn how to take the standardized math and/or reading tests.

There is even evidence suggesting that real, authentic learning may suffer under these circumstances. But more on that later.

2) It Steals Instruction Time

There are only so many days in the school year. Taking away class time to focus on test prep reduces the amount of time where students are authentically learning. We already take away weeks of class time for the actual assessments. Then many schools take additional time for practice tests. Now we’re losing even more time to teach students how to take the tests.

How much time is lost? According to a report by the American Federation of Teachers, public schools spend an average of 19 days to a month and a half on testing and test prep combined. However, some districts spend much more time on teaching to the test than the average. One school included in the study spent an average of 20 to 40 minutes a day on testing. Moreover, this time increases dramatically in the most highly tested grades and poorest schools.

Taxpayers compensate teachers to teach – not game the system. Students want to learn real skills, not advanced ways to jump through hoops. It can be argued that teaching to the test robs everyone of time that can be better spent.

3) It Dumbs Down the Curriculum

Teaching to the test is not real teaching. Students are not being taught authentic skills. Researchers Lauren Resnick and Chris Zurawsky call it a recipe for bad teaching. “When teachers match their teaching to what they expect to appear on state tests of this sort,” they write, “students are likely to experience far more facts and routines than conceptual understanding and problem-solving in their curriculum…. Narrow tests…can become the de facto curriculum.”

The modern economy is not crying out for the next generation of test-takers. Economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane warn that all kinds of jobs, but particularly higher paying jobs, increasingly require more complex critical thinking skills and much fewer rote and routine skills. Their 30-year analysis shows a steadily declining demand for workers who are able to do rote tasks and a skyrocketing demand for “expert thinking” skills. Employers want prospective employees with the ability to solve problems that require more than simply following rules or applying old knowledge to new situations. They need workers with complex thinking and communication skills.

In short, teaching to the test greatly reduces the depth of study and turns it into the same kind of mechanical process employers aren’t looking for at the expense of the kinds of skills they demand.

But that’s not all. An over-emphasis on the subjects tested, inevitably narrows the curriculum. Non-tested disciplines receive less attention during the school day. Time is diverted from subjects like physical education, music, and drama so that teachers can provide more instructional time on commonly tested areas like reading, writing and math.

The result is far less well-rounded students who are instilled with the false assumption that certain vital endeavors are meaningless or certainly subordinate to basic skills.

4) It Actually Hurts Learning

Not only does item teaching dumb down what’s being taught, it actually erodes basic skill development even in tested subjects. Explicit instruction in test taking strategies is not educationally neutral. It’s harmful.

For instance, researcher Monty Neill explained how test-taking strategies can erode authentic reading comprehension skills. Standardized reading tests often present students with a long passage followed by several multiple choice questions. One of the most common strategies is for students to read the questions first before reading the passage. In many cases you don’t have to read the passage to answer the question. Even if you do need to read it, the question provides students with a clue that they can look for when skimming the passage for the right answer. However, independent evaluators found that over-reliance on this strategy can lead to children who can find the correct answer on the test but cannot explain what the passage is about. The implication is that there may be a significant number of test wise students who lack the basic skills needed to be successful in higher education.

Additionally, even where tested subjects like reading and math are emphasized, the non-tested areas of these disciplines are underutilized. Reading, for example, isn’t just about passage comprehension. It includes listening and speaking skills that are not assessed on high stakes tests. So students can get advanced scores without having the requisite skills for mastery of the subject.

This is especially important for students going on to college. They will be expected to do many things they were not tested on such as making an oral presentation, conducting a science experiment, or writing a research report. For all the talk of Common Core aligned tests making students “college and career ready,” teaching to the test undermines this goal.

5) It Hurts Morale of Students and Teachers

And then we come to perhaps the worst part: motivation. Young children don’t need a reason to learn. They’re naturally curious and soak up knowledge like a sponge. However, as children mature and enter the higher grades, that natural curiosity can be damaged, dampened and even destroyed with long-lasting effects.

Teaching to the test turns school into a completely extrinsic exercise. It’s a game. Learn how to take the test so you can get a good score – don’t work hard to learn things you really care about. It should come as no surprise then that such emphasis has a negative impact on intrinsic motivation according to Edward Miller and Roberta Tovey’s Motivation, Achievement and Testing. In fact, though test prep gives students the tools to artificially raise their scores, it also can remove the motivation to get good scores in the first place. In short, it undermines the reason kids come to school at all: to learn and self-actualize.

And the damage isn’t limited to students. Item teaching also removes the joy of teaching for the teacher. It exacerbates feelings of frustration and disillusionment with the entire testing process. Wayne E. Wright (2002) documented the effects of high-stakes testing and the increased prevalence of teaching to the test in an inner-city California school. One teacher summarized her frustration with the schools test driven agenda by commenting:

“The most pathetic thing is that up until two years ago, I counseled young people, “Come into teaching. It is a wonderful profession.” Now I counsel them to find something else because this is not the profession I would choose for myself.”

(Wright, 2002, p. 28).

Recommendations and Conclusions

We’ve seen how damaging test prep can be. But does that mean it should never be utilized?

I don’t think there is definitive evidence to make that conclusion. Item teaching is not necessarily bad if done to best effect, under strict control and as minimally as possible. Doing this once or twice probably won’t poison the entire act of teaching, but it also won’t have a dramatic effect on the scores. Perhaps we should adopt a policy of cautious moderation and tread carefully.

However, it is clear that teachers should emphasize curriculum teaching over teaching to the test. Focus on student development of real critical thinking skills and the higher levels of Bloom’s taxonomy. In this way students will be more likely to apply their new cognitive abilities and content knowledge in areas that extend beyond the confines of a particular test. In short, they’ll actually learn stuff – the important stuff – not just how to take a standardized test.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Administrators and policymakers often direct teachers to spend increasing amounts of class time doing item teaching. Almost every state includes hundreds of released test questions for just this purpose. An entire publishing industry exists to create and distribute item teaching materials. This is, in fact, one of the major ways the test companies make their money – make tests so hard kids fail and then sell schools the test prep materials to get students to pass.

What’s needed more than anything is to educate the educators – or at least their bosses. Teachers need to understand how harmful the policies are they’re being directed to undertake. Administrators need to understand that teaching to the test has diminishing returns in the long run. And our policymakers need to wake up and smell the coffee.

Test scores are neither adequate nor sufficient indicators of school success. Students cannot be reduced to numbers and evaluated as if they were produce.

Until we realize that as a bone-deep truth, we will continue to fail students as they continue to fail us. And our teachers will be continually forced to violate their deepest principles in order to stay in the classroom.


ENDNOTES:

Levy, F., & Murnane, R. J. (2004). The new division of labor: How computers are creating the next job market. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Miller, E., & Tovey, R. (Eds.). (1996). Motivation, achievement, and testing. Boston: Harvard Education Press.
Neil, M. (2003b). The dangers of testing. Educational Leadership, 60(5), 43-46.
Popham, W. J. (2001, March). Teaching to the test? Educational Leadership, 58(6), 16’20.

Resnick, L., & Zurawsky, C. (2005, spring). Getting back on course: Standards-based reform and accountability. American Educator. Retrieved June 30, 2006, from http://www.aft.org/pubs-reports/american_educator/issues/spring05/resnick.htm

Wright, W. E. (2002). The effects of high stakes testing in an inner city elementary school: The curriculum, the teachers, and the English language learners. Current Issues in Education, 5(5). Online at http://cie.ed.asu.edu/volume5/number5.

The First Rule of Test Club is We Don’t Talk About Test Club

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How can you criticize standardized testing if you aren’t allowed to talk about the tests?

To show why these assessments are bad, you have to be able to mention specific questions on the exams.

But if you do that, you will be violating the test company’s copyright and thus be subject to legal action.

So there will be no discussion of your concerns, no defense of the questions in question. Instead you’ll be threatened to silence.

This is the Catch-22 for teachers, parents and children throughout the nation.

We know the federally mandated high stakes assessments public school children must take are poorly constructed, culturally and racially biased, and ultimately unfair. But if we speak up in public with any kind of specificity, we’re threatened with steep fines. And if we write about it on-line, those articles will be taken down, censored or otherwise disappeared.

This is what happened to Prof. Celia Oyler of Teachers College, Columbia University this week when she posted an anonymous classroom teacher’s critique of the 4th grade PARCC exam on her blog.

Since the article reproduced three live questions from the exam, Oyler received a threatening email from PARCC CEO Laura Slover.

Oyler acquiesced to the CEO’s demand that she remove the PARCC questions, but she did not – as Slover commanded – reveal the name of her source. Oyler is debating legal action of her own against the testing company.

Meanwhile, education bloggers across the country have engaged in civil disobedience by reprinting Oyler’s entire post along with the PARCC questions. Many of these articles have been taken down by Twitter, Facebook or other Internet enforcers.

It’s a sad day in America when free speech is treated so disdainfully.

These PARCC questions are considered private property, but in many important ways they are not. They were developed at public expense. They were funded by taxpayers for use in our public schools. As such, they should be subject to public review.

And we may review them – privately. Ostensibly anyone could ask their local school district officials to be allowed to come in to the principal’s office and look over the tests. In fact, this is one of the first steps parents go through to opt their children out of taking the exams. You can page through the tests with supervision so you don’t make any copies or remove any materials from the building.

I’m sorry. This is just not the same thing as putting these tests under public scrutiny.

I can look at them, myself, and make up my own mind. So can you. We can even meet and talk about this together in our own private homes. But the second I go to a public forum like a school board meeting and begin to discuss these assessments in any detail, I can be charged with breaking the testing company’s copyright.

And so can my child. In fact, multiple students have already been harassed on-line by test corporation Pearson for allegedly talking about their exams.

This begs several questions: Can we legally hold minors accountable to such contracts without first providing them with legal representation of their own? Moreover, can they be forced to enter into these agreements without the presence of their parents or guardians?

However, there is an even more basic question with more far-reaching implications for the entire high stakes enterprise: How can experts explain what is wrong with the tests, if they can’t talk about anything on the tests?

Oyler mentions a question from the 4th Grade PARCC exam that is written at least two years above the grade level being assessed. Students are asked to read at a level beyond their years in order to find an answer. That’s patently unfair. But it’s one thing to make that claim – it’s quite another to point to the exact question and prove it beyond a shadow of a doubt.

Unfortunately, this vital fact is being completely ignored. The testing companies have already silenced that debate. We’re not discussing the quality of the test anymore. We’re discussing free speech. It’s an important issue, but it isn’t the one we started with.

Standardized assessments are not top secret military documents. Reproducing a test question that tens of thousands of students have already seen is not analogous to Edward Snowden or Julian Assange.

Hundreds of test questions are already released by assessment corporations as examples to help with test preparation. Some of them even show up on the actual tests. Why not release them all? One couldn’t possibly go through every question and memorize the answers before taking the tests.

When the assessment industry gets to show us only a portion of the questions they use, they’re bound to display only the least objectionable ones in the bunch. We’re accepting an illusion of transparency and forking out more than $1 billion annually for the privilege.

A product created with such a wealth of taxpayer dollars should be open to public review and debate. At very least, we should demand these questions are subject to independent review. That doesn’t mean the testing companies get to hire so-called experts with ties to their industry to sign off on the questions. It means real experts should have a say. We should hear from PhD’s in the field like Oyler. We should hear from classroom teachers. We should hear from parents and even students.

This is the only way we can ensure students are being assessed fairly. We shouldn’t just trust the huge corporations manufacturing this stuff. We have to know exactly what’s on the tests.

Without such public scrutiny and outcry, test corporations have no incentive to better their products. In fact, this is exactly how New York State residents got rid of perhaps the most infamous test question ever reported – The Pineapple Question.

You can read about the whole thing here, but the basic story goes as follows. Several years ago, students who finished their 8th grade reading test couldn’t get over how absurd this question was. They talked about it to anyone who would listen. Eventually, the question was reprinted on parent Leonie Haimson’s blog, Class Size Matters. It became a national head-scratcher. People all over the country called for the question’s removal.

Without public input, the Pineapple Question might still be on the tests. Students could still be trying to answer a question almost everyone thinks is ridiculous.

People often say they want more accountability in public education. Isn’t it time we started to hold the test manufacturers accountable for their products? Isn’t it time we restored free speech to public education?

We can’t improve our schools if we’re more concerned with a private company’s copyright than we are with the quality of the product they’re providing us.

We can’t have a functioning school system if whistle blowers are silenced.

The PARCC Test: Exposed

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The following article comes from Prof. Celia Oyler’s blog. In it, she reprinted an anonymous teacher’s critique of the 4th grade PARCC exam. Since the piece includes three live test questions from the exam, the article has been repeatedly taken down under threat that it violates copyright. I hold that this is a spurious claim and am re-posting the article in-full as an act of civil disobedience. The public has a right to know exactly what questions are on the standardized tests they’re paying to be produced.


 

 

 

The PARCC Test: Exposed

The author of this blog posting is a public school teacher who will remain anonymous.

I will not reveal my district or my role due to the intense legal ramifications for exercising my Constitutional First Amendment rights in a public forum. I was compelled to sign a security form that stated I would not be “Revealing or discussing passages or test items with anyone, including students and school staff, through verbal exchange, email, social media, or any other form of communication” as this would be considered a “Security Breach.” In response to this demand, I can only ask—whom are we protecting?

There are layers of not-so-subtle issues that need to be aired as a result of national and state testing policies that are dominating children’s lives in America. As any well prepared educator knows, curriculum planning and teaching requires knowing how you will assess your students and planning backwards from that knowledge. If teachers are unable to examine and discuss the summative assessment for their students, how can they plan their instruction? Yet, that very question assumes that this test is something worth planning for. The fact is that schools that try to plan their curriculum exclusively to prepare students for this test are ignoring the body of educational research that tells us how children learn, and how to create developmentally appropriate activities to engage students in the act of learning. This article will attempt to provide evidence for these claims as a snapshot of what is happening as a result of current policies.

The PARCC test is developmentally inappropriate
In order to discuss the claim that the PARCC test is “developmentally inappropriate,” examine three of the most recent PARCC 4th grade items.

A book leveling system, designed by Fountas and Pinnell, was made “more rigorous” in order to match the Common Core State Standards. These newly updated benchmarks state that 4th Graders should be reading at a Level S by the end of the year in order to be considered reading “on grade level.” [Celia’s note: I do not endorse leveling books or readers, nor do I think it appropriate that all 9 year olds should be reading a Level S book to be thought of as making good progress.]

The PARCC, which is supposedly a test of the Common Core State Standards, appears to have taken liberties with regard to grade level texts. For example, on the Spring 2016 PARCC for 4th Graders, students were expected to read an excerpt from Shark Life: True Stories about Sharks and the Sea by Peter Benchley and Karen Wojtyla. According to Scholastic, this text is at an interest level for Grades 9-12, and at a 7th Grade reading level. The Lexile measure is 1020L, which is most often found in texts that are written for middle school, and according to Scholastic’s own conversion chart would be equivalent to a 6th grade benchmark around W, X, or Y (using the same Fountas and Pinnell scale).

Even by the reform movement’s own standards, according to MetaMetrics’ reference material on Text Complexity Grade Bands and Lexile Bands, the newly CCSS aligned “Stretch” lexile level of 1020 falls in the 6-8 grade range. This begs the question, what is the purpose of standardizing text complexity bands if testing companies do not have to adhere to them? Also, what is the purpose of a standardized test that surpasses agreed-upon lexile levels?

So, right out of the gate, 4th graders are being asked to read and respond to texts that are two grade levels above the recommended benchmark. After they struggle through difficult texts with advanced vocabulary and nuanced sentence structures, they then have to answer multiple choice questions that are, by design, intended to distract students with answers that appear to be correct except for some technicality.
Finally, students must synthesize two or three of these advanced texts and compose an original essay. The ELA portion of the PARCC takes three days, and each day includes a new essay prompt based on multiple texts. These are the prompts from the 2016 Spring PARCC exam for 4th Graders along with my analysis of why these prompts do not reflect the true intention of the Common Core State Standards.

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #1

Refer to the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” and the poem “Mountains.” Then answer question 7.
1. Think about how the structural elements in the passage from “Emergency on the Mountain” differ from the structural elements in the poem “Mountains.”
Write an essay that explains the differences in the structural elements between the passage and the poem. Be sure to include specific examples from both texts to support your response.

The above prompt probably attempts to assess the Common Core standard RL.4.5: “Explain major differences between poems, drama, and prose, and refer to the structural elements of poems (e.g., verse, rhythm, meter) and drama (e.g., casts of characters, settings, descriptions, dialogue, stage directions) when writing or speaking about a text.”

However, the Common Core State Standards for writing do not require students to write essays comparing the text structures of different genres. The Grade 4 CCSS for writing about reading demand that students write about characters, settings, and events in literature, or that they write about how authors support their points in informational texts. Nowhere in the standards are students asked to write comparative essays on the structures of writing. The reading standards ask students to “explain” structural elements, but not in writing. There is a huge developmental leap between explaining something and writing an analytical essay about it. [Celia’s note: The entire enterprise of analyzing text structures in elementary school – a 1940’s and 50’s college English approach called “New Criticism” — is ridiculous for 9 year olds anyway.]

The PARCC does not assess what it attempts to assess

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #2
Refer to the passages from “Great White Shark” and Face the Sharks. Then answer question 20.
 Using details and images in the passages from “Great White Sharks” and Face to Face with Sharks, write an essay that describes the characteristics of white sharks.

It would be a stretch to say that this question assesses CCSS W.4.9.B: “Explain how an author uses reasons and evidence to support particular points in a text.”

In fact, this prompt assesses a student’s ability to research a topic across sources and write a research-based essay that synthesizes facts from both articles. Even CCSS W.4.7, “Conduct research projects that build knowledge through investigation of different aspects of a topic,” does not demand that students compile information from different sources to create an essay. The closest the standards come to demanding this sort of work is in the reading standards; CCSS RI.4.9 says: “Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.” Fine. One could argue that this PARCC prompt assesses CCSS RI.4.9.

However, the fact that the texts presented for students to “use” for the essay are at a middle school reading level automatically disqualifies this essay prompt from being able to assess what it attempts to assess. (It is like trying to assess children’s math computational skills by embedding them in a word problem with words that the child cannot read.)

ELA 4th Grade Prompt #3

  1. In “Sadako’s Secret,” the narrator reveals Sadako’s thoughts and feelings while telling the story. The narrator also includes dialogue and actions between Sadako and her family. Using these details, write a story about what happens next year when Sadako tries out for the junior high track team. Include not only Sadako’s actions and feelings but also her family’s reaction and feelings in your story.

Nowhere, and I mean nowhere in the Common Core State Standards is there a demand for students to read a narrative and then use the details from that text to write a new story based on a prompt. That is a new pseudo-genre called “Prose Constructed Response” by the PARCC creators, and it is 100% not aligned to the CCSS. Not to mention, why are 4th Graders being asked to write about trying out for the junior high track team? This demand defies their experiences and asks them to imagine a scenario that is well beyond their scope.

Clearly, these questions are poorly designed assessments of 4th graders CCSS learning. (We are setting aside the disagreements we have with those standards in the first place, and simply assessing the PARCC on its utility for measuring what it was intended to measure.)

Rather than debate the CCSS we instead want to expose the tragic reality of the countless public schools organizing their entire instruction around trying to raise students’ PARCC scores.

Without naming any names, I can tell you that schools are disregarding research-proven methods of literacy learning. The “wisdom” coming “down the pipeline” is that children need to be exposed to more complex texts because that is what PARCC demands of them. So children are being denied independent and guided reading time with texts of high interest and potential access and instead are handed texts that are much too hard (frustration level) all year long without ever being given the chance to grow as readers in their Zone of Proximal Development (pardon my reference to those pesky educational researchers like Vygotsky.)

So not only are students who are reading “on grade level” going to be frustrated by these so-called “complex texts,” but newcomers to the U.S. and English Language Learners and any student reading below the proficiency line will never learn the foundational skills they need, will never know the enjoyment of reading and writing from intrinsic motivation, and will, sadly, be denied the opportunity to become a critical reader and writer of media. Critical literacies are foundational for active participation in a democracy.

We can look carefully at one sample to examine the health of the entire system– such as testing a drop of water to assess the ocean. So too, we can use these three PARCC prompts to glimpse how the high stakes accountability system has deformed teaching and warped learning in many public schools across the United States.

In this sample, the system is pathetically failing a generation of children who deserve better, and when they are adults, they may not have the skills needed to engage as citizens and problem-solvers. So it is up to us, those of us who remember a better way and can imagine a way out, to make the case for stopping standardized tests like PARCC from corrupting the educational opportunities of so many of our children.

Less Resources, Harder Tests: Common Core in the Last Days of Obama

teaching_testing

 

The bell hadn’t even rung to begin class yet, but Ce Ce already had enough.

 

She saw the pile of standardized test look-a-like sheets on the front desk and immediately asked if she could go to in-school suspension.

 

I’m not kidding.

 

She’d prefer to spend the day in silence doing homework isolated from the rest of the class than practicing high stakes testing with her peers.

 

And she’s not alone. This happens every year now. As assessment season gets closer, administrators push teachers to do test prep. And students revolt.

 

I’m not exactly sure why. Test replicas are not my favorite things to do, either, but they’re not THAT bad. I don’t think it can be my teaching since the mutiny usually happens before I’ve even begun.

 

It’s the testing. Pure and simple. Some students are so demoralized by the very prospect of skill-and-drill that spending one more second reading passages and filling in bubbles seems a fate worse than death.

 

And I can’t really blame them.

 

In the last two years, Pennsylvania has modified its mandatory assessments until it’s almost impossible for my students to pass.

 

Bureaucrats call it “raising standards,” but it’s really just making the unlikely almost unthinkable.

 

Impoverished students have traditionally had a harder time scoring as well as their wealthier peers. But the policy response has been to make things MORE difficult. How does that help?

 

Consider this: If a malnourished runner couldn’t finish the 50 yard dash, forcing him to run 100 yards isn’t raising standards. It’s piling on.

 

Oh. Both your arms are broken? Here. Bench press 300 lbs.

 

Both your feet were chopped off in an accident? Go climb Mt. Everest.

 

That’s what’s happening in the Keystone State and across the country. We’re adding extra layers of complexity to each assessment without regard to whether they’re developmentally appropriate or even necessary and fair to gauge individual skills.

 

Where Common Core State Standards have been adopted (and Pennsylvania has its own version called PA Core), annual tests have become irrationally difficult. That’s why last year’s state tests – which were the first completely aligned to PA Core – saw a steep drop off in passing scores. Students flunked it in droves.

 

Where the previous tests were bad, the new ones are beyond inappropriate.

 

Take Text Dependent Analysis (TDA). It’s something we’ve always done in language arts classes, but it’s meaning has subtly changed thanks to PA Core.

 

Two years ago, it used to denote that students had to refer to the text when writing essays. Now it’s come to mean something more – referring to the text (or texts) with at least two degrees of complexity.

 

On the Reading section of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests, students must peruse several passages and respond in writing.

 

Before PA Core, middle school students might have had to read one passage and then explain what its main idea was. This would require them to cite specific examples from the text. For instance, “This passage is mostly about bears because the author writes about hunting them in the Klondike, the ways in which their habitat is affected and their hibernation instinct.” Then students would have to go into more detail highlighting sections of text that support this.

 

Now students have to read TWO passages and write about something that pervades BOTH but is still tremendously complex. For instance, a 6th grade example released from the state has students read a poem and a folktale about people tricking others into sharing food. Then they have to write about the theme of both pieces and analyze how it is developed in each text using specific references.

 

The texts concern nothing most students would find interesting and are difficult to understand for children of that age. Moreover, properly developing an essay of this type should be done over the course of several classes. But middle schoolers are expected to do this in a single testing session.

 

Test proctors are instructed to put aside about 80 minutes for the essay and several related multiple choice questions though, technically, students can take as long as they’d like. They could be given extended time to write for several hours if they want. But most children at this age simply don’t have that kind of stamina. They are not physically and mentally prepared to sit and concentrate like that.

 

It’s a task many adults would find challenging, but we’re expecting 10- and 11-year-olds to do it!

 

Can middle school students (ages 10-14) handle this level of complexity, especially in such a short amount of time?

 

Honestly, it depends on the child. Everyone matures at a different rate. However, for most of the students I have taught in over a decade of middle school experience as a Nationally Board Certified teacher with a Masters Degree in Education, it is my professional opinion that this level of mastery is out of reach.

 

In fact, at an in-service training, administrators at my building had the entire teaching staff attempt this essay to show us what was expected from students. The general consensus was that it was unreasonable.

 

Requiring this level of difficulty simply ignores children’s basic humanity. Most of my students come to me not knowing how to write a good essay. If they were all computers, I could break up everything they needed to know into small bits, give it to them piecemeal over the course of the year, and they would learn. But they are not computers – they are children.

 

That’s why they rebel. We’re demanding more from them than they can give.

 

It might be different if we met them half way. It might be more reachable if higher expectations came with additional help.

 

If my students had any chance to achieve at this level so early in their cognitive development, we would need to bring in a team of writing specialists, a flurry of councilors, nutritionists, and wrap around social services. However, no resources have been added to help students meet these added testing hardships. In fact, Pennsylvania has slashed school budgets by almost $1 billion annually.

 

All the responsibility is thrown on the underfunded schools as if the few teachers who haven’t already been furloughed can somehow perform magic.

 

A surgeon can’t operate without tools. Nor is he expected to do the job of nurse and physical therapist as well.

 

It’s a matter of less resources and harder tests, then blame teachers when it doesn’t work.

 

It’s not just bad policy; it’s a denial of reality.

 

Add to that the social, cultural and economic aspects. Lawmakers pretend everyone is starting from the same point, but this is demonstrably untrue.

 

I teach mostly black and brown kids at a high poverty district. Many of my students only get a hot meal at school. They’re malnourished, violence-scarred, and under-equipped. They have few books in the home. Their parents aren’t around because the adults are working multiple jobs to support them. They live in violent neighborhoods where gunshots, drive-bys and premature death are commonplace. And you think they somehow have the same chances of scoring well on standardized assessments as children without these problems!? You expect them to prioritize standardized testing!?

 

And after years of being subjected to child abuse as education policy, the only thing they’ve learned from testing is that they’re not good at it and they might as well not try.

 

Is it any wonder some of them would rather sit in our school’s version of prison than stay in class and practice test taking strategies?

 

We’re running up against the nature of cognition and how young minds grow. We’re ignoring the social, cultural and economic conditions in which these children live. And we’re pretending this is somehow a fair and just accounting of children’s academic skills and their teachers’ effectiveness.

 

Children need to be engaged. They need to see how an assignment affects their lives. They need to care. They need intrinsic motivation, which is almost impossible to find for a test that is essentially extrinsic.

 

Our current education policy is the equivalent of holding a gun on children and demanding they perform almost impossible tasks.

 

It is time to stop the violence. It’s time to end the child abuse.

 

But is anyone listening?

My Daughter is Not a Widget

Father Holding Daughter's Hand

“I’m not sure public schools understand that we’re their customer—that we, the business community, are your customer. What they don’t understand is they are producing a product at the end of that high school graduation. Now is that product in a form that we, the customer, can use it? Or is it defective, and we’re not interested? American schools have got to step up the performance level—or they’re basically turning out defective products that have no future. Unfortunately, the defective products are human beings. So it’s really serious. It’s tragic. But that’s where we find ourselves today.”
Rex Tillerson, ExxonMobil CEO

My daughter just turned seven during this holiday season.

She loves to draw. She’ll take over the dinning room table and call it her office. Over the course of a single hour, she can render a complete story with full color images supporting a handwritten plot.

These narratives usually star super heroes, cartoon characters and sometimes her mommy and daddy. In these flights of fantasy, I’ve traveled to worlds lit by distant suns, been a contestant on a Food Network cooking show, and even been a karate pupil to a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle sensei.

That little girl is my pride and joy. I love her more than anything else in this world.

Make no mistake – She is not anyone’s product.

She is not a cog to fit into your machine. She is not merchandise, a commodity, a widget for you to judge valuable or not. She is not some THING for you to import or export. She is not a device, a gadget, a doodad, a doohickey or a dingus. She is not an implement, a utensil, a tool, or an artifact.

Her value is not extrinsic. It is intrinsic.

She is a person with a head full of ideas, a heart full of creativity and passion. She has likes and dislikes. She loves, she lives, she dreams.

And somehow Tillerson, this engineer turned CEO, thinks she’s nothing more than a commercial resource to be consumed by Big Business. He thinks her entire worth as a human being can be reduced to her market value. It doesn’t matter what she desires for herself. It only matters if she fills a very narrow need set by corporate America.

But what else should we expect from the man in charge of ExxonMobil? The corporation has a history of scandal, corruption and malfeasance going back decades.

Since the 1980s the company has been suppressing its own incredibly accurate data on climate change because that science would adversely affect the bottom line of a business that earns its money burning fossil fuels. Moreover, the company funds climate change denial groups. A study by the US Union of Concerned Scientists reports that ExxonMobil funded 29 climate change denial groups in 2004 alone. Since 1990, the report says, the company has spent more than $19 million funding groups that promote their views through publications and Web sites that are not peer reviewed by the scientific community. Need we even mention the corporation’s long history with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC)?

Tillerson and Exxon have also been major boosters of the fracking industry pushing for deregulation as health concerns mount. Most recently, the organization was ordered to pay a $100,000 Environmental Protection Agency civil penalty for an illegal discharge of fluids from a Marcellus Shale natural gas well site in Lycoming County, Pennsylvania.

It’s all about profit at Exxon. The corporation’s cost cutting measures also resulted in the largest oil spill in US waters to date. Environmental impacts are still being felt in Alaska’s Prince William Sound from the 11 million gallons of oil the Exxon Valdez supertanker unintentionally poured into the ocean, coasts and forests in 1989. Subsequent spills have occurred in Brooklyn (2007), the Yellowstone River (2011), Baton Rouge (2012), and Arkansas (2013). But why should that matter? The corporation was listed as the second most profitable in the world on the Fortune 500 in 2014.

Yet Tillerson is somehow worried about American workers being up to snuff? Why? The corporation outsources a steadily increasing share of its jobs overseas. Those that it does keep in the continental US have been subject to massive downsizing efforts. As employees have decreased, corporate profits have increased. And Tillerson expects anyone to think he’s concerned about the well-being of the American worker!? Give me a break!

 

Exxon_Income_vs_Employment

 

I suppose it’s not that surprising though that someone who makes $40 million a year, himself, would expect a paycheck to be the ultimate display of personal significance. After all, he probably thinks his exorbitant salary proves that he’s very important.

Albert Einstein never made that kind of money. Heck! Neither did William Shakespeare, Dr. Martin Luther King, Marie Curie, or Abraham Lincoln. So by Tillerson’s ethos, all of these people were defective products unfit for the corporate world. Or at the very least our estimation of them is flawed.

After all, what need have we of Shakespeare’s poetry in the exercise of buying and selling? Perhaps the greatest author ever to write in the English language might find merit in the advertising department. Likewise, Dr. King’s ethic of equality might be useful in human resources. Marie Curie? She’d find gainful employment in research and development but any patents she generated would undoubtedly be held in the corporate interest. And Mr. Lincoln? Perhaps he could be useful as a low level administrator but, no, such iconoclasm as he possessed would probably not be a good fit. He’d end up freeing the wage slaves or other such unprofitable nonsense.

Is this really the American Dream? Find an occupation producing monetary wealth or else lose all claims to value? If so, how loud must history be laughing at us?

The post-Impressionist artist Van Gogh created 900 paintings and 1,100 drawings and sketches. Many of these works now adorn museums around the globe and have forever changed the way we see the world. But during his lifetime, he sold only one painting. So by Tillerman’s logic, he was a defective product, a failure.

This is the sickness of the profiteer – to be forever appraising worth but unable to see true value. It is the disease eating away at the soul of our country. It’s the same mindset that justifies anything in the name of short-term gain – credit default swaps, the housing bubble, charter schools and Common Core.

After all, Tillerson’s notorious quote above comes from an infamous article in Fortune magazine in which the CEO threatened the former governor of Pennsylvania that he’d pull ExxonMobil out of the state if the legislature didn’t adopt some form of Common Core. And so the state gave in to the whim of one man with no experience, knowledge or wisdom about how children learn. And students in more than 500 public school districts are thus constrained by this legal economic blackmail.

I am but a simple man. I don’t bring in a six-figure salary. I’m a teacher in that same public school system. I’m also the father of an elementary student. I am a man of no monetary means and thus little merit. But I say this: the Tillersons of this world are wrong. Our children are worth more than these tiny bean counter brains realize. The purpose of education is not to provide more resources for their pointless game of Monopoly.

My daughter has a life, and her education is a tool to enrich that life. It is her vehicle of understanding the world around her. It is a process to invigorate her sense of wonder. It is a method of understanding how things work and where she fits in the universe.

Yes, she will one day need to seek employment. But what she chooses as her occupation will be up to her. SHE will decide where she fits in, Mr. Tillerson, not you. SHE will decide what is valuable in her life. SHE will decide if she wants to spend her hours in the pursuit of profits or less tangible enterprises.

As such, she needs literature – not standardized tests. She needs mysteries to solve – not Common Core. She needs equitable resourcesnot charter schools. She needs teachers with advanced degrees and dedication to their jobs – not Teach for America temps.

Don’t you dare try to justify all that with some narrow economic view of monetary value. Some things have no price. My daughter is one of them.

 


NOTE: This article also was featured on Diane Ravitch’s blog, I did an interview about it on the Rick Smith Show, and was quoted in an article about the issue in the Washington Post.

 

 

Close Reading: Myopia as a Virtue

head in book
Painting by Pawel Kuczynski

 

 

You are reading a text.

Yes. Right now.

Your eyes are scanning over symbols called letters. They are joined together into words and sentences and paragraphs to make up the total of this article.

Your brain is in the process of translating these symbols into sounds, meanings, concepts. And you are reacting to those concepts.

You’re having thoughts about what you’re reading. Maybe you’re reminded of a similar article you’ve read sometime in the past. Maybe you’re feeling a thrill of excitement at such an original introduction to an education article. Or perhaps you’re rolling your eyes and wondering why the author is such a doofus.

No matter how you look at it, reading involves complex processes. A whole bunch of stuff is going on to make it happen – all of it essential.

Yet when we evaluate reading comprehension these days, we put the focus squarely on one or two of those multifarious processes. It’s reductive, reactionary, and lame. It’s a dumbing down of the cognitive and metacognitive process. But it makes things easy to grade on a standardized test.

That’s what the fad of close reading is all about. It’s an attempt to make the mysterious and complex mind something that can easily be labeled right or wrong.

For the uninitiated, close reading is the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text in which great emphasis is put on individual words, syntax, and the order in which sentences and ideas unfold.

It’s not that close reading is unimportant. After all, it’s something good readers do. But an overemphasis on this aspect leaves out so much that is even more vital. It’s like saying the only significant part of the Hershey bar is the wrapper, or the only salient part of eating the Hershey bar is chewing. However, when I unwrap my dessert, there better be chocolate inside, and after I bite into it, I’d better not forget to swallow!

But education specialists with little to no actual classroom experience are making a killing going from school-to-school lecturing teachers about how to teach. And they’re telling us to emphasize close reading to the detriment of all else.

They’re saying we need to give our students short texts of no more than a page or two. We should have our students read these texts without any background into who wrote them or why. We should then have students answer questions that require them to go back to the text, find something and spit it back to us.

For instance:

How does the author use figurative language to develop theme?

Explain how word choice in the passage develops characterization.

Provide examples from the passage that demonstrate the author’s bias.

To the uninitiated, it looks like really important work. It’s not. This is the literary equivalent of taking out the garbage or going on a scavenger hunt. These are good things, but they are not the be-all-end-all. They don’t capture the essential reason we read – to understand.

Imagine if I asked you to go back into the part of this article you’ve already read and find one example of a North American pejorative used by the author. You could do it. You could scan back to the beginning, look through everything I wrote and find that I used the word “Doofus.”

Huzzah! You win the scavenger hunt.

Now explain why I used that word by making reference to textual evidence. You could do that, too. You could look at all the other things I’ve written so far and explain why I probably chose that word.

Congrats!

But notice what you can’t do, what these think tank clones will never ask you to do – form a substantial opinion. Not just why do you think someone else did something but what do you think about what they did?

For example:

Do you think the use of colloquialisms and slang have a place in serious education theory? Why or why not?

When was the most or least effective time you or a colleague used a colloquialism to express a complex thought? Evaluate its effectiveness.

In what ways are forbidden words more or less meaningful than those more easily sanctioned?

At its core, reading is not about discrete facts. No one picks up a piece of text to find out minute fragments of information. Instead, we’re looking for enlightenment. We don’t care so much about how the astronaut puts on the spacesuit. We want to know why she put it on in the first place. We want to know where she’s going. We want to know what it’s like and if we’d want to do something like that ourselves.

But an overemphasis on close reading ignores all this. It pretends readers are robots. It pretends reading is a mechanical process that can be easily divided into its component parts and examined discretely.

Even worse it ignores the needs of individual students. For many children in our modern world, reading of this sort is almost entirely alien to their lives. There are so many things competing for our attention these days that reading often gets neglected. Even if you love to read, it can be difficult to find the time and inclination to sit down, quiet yourself and read.

THIS is where most educators would like to focus – getting students to read at all. We want to show learners why they might want to read. We want to engage them. Demonstrate what an amazing experience a good book can be. We want to foster that look of delight in their eyes, that sense of wonder, the epiphany of literacy.

But instead we’re being told to focus on the nuts and bolts, the everyday boring hunt and seek of mechanical mentation.

Whatever you do, don’t see the forest; see the trees. Don’t look at the big picture; look exclusively to the details and don’t worry your pretty little head about making any larger meaning out of it.

This is tantamount to child abuse. We’re putting blinders on children’s minds and telling them which direction to think. We’re taking away their ownership of the reading experience. It’s no longer about what they want, what they’ve lived through, what they believe or what they see. It’s only about the author’s view – an author they probably don’t care about because they had no part in all the other crucial facets of reading. In fact, I would argue that this isn’t even really reading at all. It’s little more than  decoding. It’s a skill set fit for a corporate drone, not someone in management or any position to make valuable decisions.

It’s no wonder that these prescriptions are only leveled at public schools. Parochial, private and charter schools are specifically left out of these mandates. The same people demanding close reading for your kids want something much different for their own.

This is class warfare as education policy. It’s all about keeping down working families and lifting up the one percent.

That’s essentially what corporate education reform is all about – every tentacle of the beast is wrapped around young minds of the poor, the brown skinned, the undesirable.

But perhaps you don’t agree with me. Perhaps you have your own thoughts on this matter which may differ from mine.

Fine, I say. Good!

Yes, please think about it. Ponder these issues carefully, because while I’m championing free thought, the other side wants nothing less than your children’s complete submission to the status quo.

Feel free to give that a nice close read.

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NOTE: This article also was published on the Badass Teachers Association Blog.