Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Standardized Tests are the Failures - Not Our Children

How Standardized Tests Do Not Assess Common Core Standards (Part 1 of 2 Parts)

Packaging "Wonder"
The PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) drives the current trend - the Common Core and its Standardized Tests, which bombard American public school children all through the school year.  The College Board's David Coleman and a team of non- educators chiseled out these standards (as in chisel and stone). Coleman claims that this will be instrumental in"cultivating wonder" in every classroom across the country.

The idea of cultivating wonder is a lofty notion. But "wonder" can't be mandated. In the Socratic Tradition, cultivating wonder requires thinking and discourse and investigation - none of which can be measured through standardized testing.

So good luck to any teacher, student, administrator, or parent who tries to find the ways that these assessments actually connect to the standards themselves. Because there is none.

Let's look at the description for the Close Reading standard:

College and Career readiness anchor Standard for reading

Key Ideas and details:

1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text. (www.

Despite the fact that this approach to reading feels like a joyless procedure, I tried to keep an open mind when working with my seventh graders. I have an arts background and would need to lean on imagination and problem solving to work to engage my students and to get them excited about looking at written language.

Our English language is robust and evolved, often strangely, from other languages. New words find their place in our dialogues as they're appointed to everyday use.  Our language is as organic as a rain forest; fluid and changing.  I was eager to work with my students who are also fluid and changing: Seventh graders mostly love to talk and to challenge: We could have fun with this.

This standard includes the study of connotation and detonation.  Different words mean different things to a student - depending on gender, socioeconomic background, nationality, personality, cognitive development, and life's experience.  Depending on who you are, the word HIT - might apply to baseball, a popular song, viewings on a viral You Tube item, or, a slap.

But, there was no curriculum provided. So, burdened by no curriculum, or, re-frame this as unburdened by untried pre-processsed rigid bulleted CC lesson plans, I had a certain amount of freedom to seek out my own resources as I set about to "cultivate wonder" among my students.

No curriculum? Consult with a scholar.

Before outlining lessons, I re-visited Francine Prose' Reading Like a Writer. I had read this book in grad school.  A prolific writer of fiction and non-fiction, Prose is a university professor and a scholar of reading and language.  I love this book - she discusses the explicit and the subtle, and relates how as a student, her English teacher guided her class through King Lear and Oedipus Rex to circle every reference to eyes, light, darkness and vision.  Prose observes: "And searching for every relevant word turned out to have an enjoyable treasure-hunt aspect, a 'Where's Waldo' detective thrill...(p. 4, Reading Like a Writer).

Her book is organized sequentially in the way we approach reading: The chapters are as such: Close Reading, Words, Sentences, Paragraphs, Narration, Dialogue, Details, and the nuanced Gesture. She examines the literal, and how that may be interpreted. There is something for every reader of any age;
plenty for a child who is a concrete thinker to grab onto - and plenty for a child who is moving into higher level thinking to ponder.

Through the rest of her book, which I enthusiastically recommend for anybody who reads/writes and/or teaches any subject she encourages us to roll up our sleeves and immerse ourselves in language.  I wanted to use Prose' book to light the way through this new reading unit, kind of like a powerful utility flashlight - so we could focus on words and phrases through her high beam.

For starters, I brought a few words to the table: Dove, Blood, Hit, and Fire.  Students wrote down their gut response. No correct or incorrect - purely subjective. (that is connotation)

Then we discussed the literal meanings and created a mnemonic for Denotation = Dictionary Definition.

Students' connotations of the words were quite varied:  Another mnemonic: Connotation - Connection: Emotional, Experience.  For the word Dove:  Dove=soap, Dove=bird, Dove=peace (symbolic, higher level thinking here), Dove-venturing bird from Noah's arc, Dove=shy and gentle.
The responses were so individual, which what makes language study fascinating.

Okay, so how does all this kind of reflection and discourse measure up on a standardized test? Before going there, there's another example of student responses to the word Blood.

Blood=hospital, Blood-=relative, Blood=gory, Blood=loyalty, Blood=war

There is no "right" answer for connotation if we have no context around it.  But depending on the context, blood takes on a different shading.  This is a skill to cultivate; it's higher level reflexive thinking -- a good reach for seventh graders.

Later we examined the connotation of the word rain in the Longfellow poem The Rainy Day. In this poem, rain signifies sadness and loss. How different from the joyful rain Langston Hughes celebrates in his April Rain Song.  We spent the rest of the year, until the tests, looking closely at the denotation and connotation of language in all that we read together.

What I had learned to share with my students: Attached to every word we know and use is our whole life's experience, and it's all rich.  I wanted them to keep experimenting with reading and writing and speaking.  They wrote daily reflections, poems, short paragraphs and essays - these were how I checked in on where they were in their understanding.

Fast forward: Test time:

Based on all the sound and fury around the goals of Coleman's Common Core, for some reason, I had
anticipated that a whole new kind of test had been created - one that would suitably measure cultivated wonder.  But on the first morning of the test week, as I flipped through the booklet, my heart sank.  These tests resembled the earlier ones from Bush's failed No Child Left Behind mandate.
These were zombie tests, rolled out from the closet of the undead.

The reading was so voluminous, that many students were unable to complete it. There was no time to highlight or jot notes, as we had slavishly practiced in class.  The writing section asked students to spit out answers - not to craft their writing.  When time was up, my students were frustrated and some were tearful as they threw down their pencils.  All the liveliness of our collective learning was yammered down flat - in a boring and insulting drill.

It was as if I'd coached them to overdress for an upcoming event, when actually all this occasion called for was to dress in a standard uniform that didn't actually fit anyone.

Problem #1: And Now for Something Completely Different.

If you've never perused a standardized ELA test, what you'll notice straight off is that the four or five reading passages have nothing to do wit;h each other.  They are decontextualized. Students read first about the Klondike Gold Rush (content not covered in class - no curriculum provided for this test), answer the questions, then skip on to ingest an unrelated passage about Diamond Veins in Africa, then leap into a disembodied passage from Louisa May Alcott's Jo's Boys (an author and book not familiar to most seventh graders, and developmentally inappropriate for many).

Because of the random quality of passages, students have just enough time to maybe develop a mild interest in the information, but then it's over, and they have to promptly move to the questions without time to process what they've just read.  It's reminiscent of the old Monty Python sketches: And Now For Something Completely Different that roll along with clattering speed.  Students have to constantly switch gears.  It's impossible to pick up on the rhythms and choices the author has made, which are
key points to reading closely, as Prose suggests.

Students have no prior knowledge of the content, so they're immediately placed at a disadvantage. Ramp up the time pressure, and I can't think of a better way to teach students how to dread reading and writing.

Important to note: The reading content (we're not asking for the questions)  of these tests are kept secret and unattainable, kind of like the Holy Grail. (Monty Python context).  That's how the test pushers keep a "leg up" on our kids, as they "race to the top."

Problem #2:  But all the work we've done doesn't show here.

As she guides us through careful word study, Prose provides us with 1 - 3 paragraphs minimally or
even a full page from an author's story so that we are provided with abundant clues as we infer what the author wants us to pay attention to. It's similar to looking at an Impressionist painting: We need as much of the painting as possible to stand back and better understand how each brush stroke is part of a larger image.

But the reading clues in standardized tests are stingy.  There's no room for full-bodied interpretation of a passage.  It's like giving the test taker a portion of a brush stroke and expecting him to "get" the full picture.

Let's have a look at this excerpt from a standardized test passage (2013 - Engage NY - 7th grade ELA exam):

Passage excerpt from Earth and Water and Sky by Brian Bushemi
(note: Brian Bushemi's novels are not on the touted CC Lexile that supposedly matches readers with books.  Students are not familiar with him. He's not Walter Dean Myers or Jaqueline Woodson or Suzanne Collins -   It is likely that Bushemi is a writer employee of Pearson, the British test materials company that has an enormous contract with PARCC. )

My point: Kids are not being tested on authors that they actually read. So why are teachers required  to choose books from the lexile?

(lines 25 - 31)

        "David stood up and continued toward the Thinking Pond. Suddenly, he heard a sharp, whining sound like the engine of a high-flying jet airplane.  It was followed by a crack! like a whip being snapped, only a thousand times louder.  Then a ball of fire roared overhead, followed by a searing gust of wind.
          The shock wave knocked David to the ground, his ears ringing. A second later, he heard an explosive, hissing crash up ahead.  A rush of air and hot steam billowed through the trees, and he covered his head as it washed over him."

And the "close reading" questions:

Which sentence from the passage best shows how powerful the meteorite was?

A "Suddenly, he heard a sharp, whining sound like the engine of a high-flying jet airplane."
      (lines 25 and 26)

B  "Then a ball of fire roared overhead, followed by a searing gust of wind." (lines 27 and 28)

C  "The shock wave knocked David to the ground, his ears ringing." (line 29)

D  "A second later, he heard an explosive, hissing crash up ahead." (lines 29 and 30)

Using Prose' flashlight beam, it's evident that Bushemi spends many sentences describing the power of the meteorite. The test assumes that students know what a meteorite is; earlier in the passage the boy muses on what it might be. A student who has no prior knowledge (we did not study meteorites in class), and thinks differently, might rightfully infer that it is an imaginary object, similar to A Thinking Pond as a magical notion.

Letter C shows that David is knocked to the ground (an idiom phrase - a challenge for an English Language Learner), but what exactly is a shock wave? Do meteorites emit shock waves that can knock people down?

A, B and D are good answer candidates for showing the power of the object, if one closely reads the words sharp, ball of fire, searing, explosive, hissing crash.  The connotation of all of those words is disturbance.  But the students aren't really being asked to work with connotation here, nor denotation, even though the standards cite those as launches to wonder.

Keeping in mind that many seventh graders are literal thinkers, it's easy to get this one wrong. There aren't enough clues. The offerings here are stingy. Thinking needs to be tamped down to it right. It's about navigating tricks, test maker's bias, and splitting hairs.  It not a scholarly exercise.  Alas, the joke was on us because the game was rigged. (casino context)

Neither does the reading of the other passages or questions bear any resemblance to reading with care. Many teachers like myself spent so much time "cultivating wonder" in the months before only to be astonished that none of that work can be measured by this test.

What happened?

My students' test scores tanked.

In Coleman and company's zeal to reform public school, they created a slipshod and hackneyed way to measure learning.  Paradoxically, these high stakes tests are insulting in design because the bar is so low.  They don't in any way deliver on the high falutin' dreams of Coleman's Common Core, and
their relationship to these standards is dysfunctional.  Yet, they do have the power to predetermine a child's educational future, to determine which schools are "failing", and the power to destroy teachers' careers.

They flatten what is individual in thinking, they degrade true scholarship, and discourage "thinking
differently"; peculiar to a culture that allegedly emulates "thinking outside the box." (corporate context).  Our children deserve better.

It all demonstrates that Coleman, Gates and the rest of the "reformers" have no idea what they're doing. Let's reform this reform, for starters; trash the tests.  They are failing our children, not the other way around.


Coming next: Part 2: Why conceptual thinking is the way of today and the future,  and how standardized tests cannot measure this.