Tuesday, September 17, 2013

PA Lurches Forward-ish


The news out of Harrisburg from last week is that the state has agreed to adopt Common Core standards, with a few notable caveats.

This line in particular jumps out: "The 13-4 vote to approve the so-called Common Core standards came after state officials said they would limit the proficiency tests to public schools, and agreed not to impose a statewide curriculum or reading lists, or expand the collection of students' personal data."

So, Gov. Corbett believes that these standards will be good for PA students-- just not the ones that attend private schools. The private school operators of the state thank you, Gov. Corbett!

The agreement "not to impose statewide curriculum" is so stunningly disingenuous that one wonders whether the state suits is devious or simply doesn't understand how this all works. I lean toward the latter, but here's what so many people fail to understand.

The test IS the curriculum. If you give a test and tell schools, "You will lose money and teachers will lose their jobs unless your students do well on The Test," the Test is your curriculum. It is not possible to create a method that more effectively mandates teaching to the test.

There would be some room to argue about how bad this really is if the test were an effective measure of the kinds of goals we want to see education accomplish. We could seriously argue, "Well, if they're well-educated, the students will do well on the test." There would be some room for disagreement-- a standardized test is not exactly authentic assessment-- but we wouldn't find ourselves completely out in left field.

But we aren't there. Here's why.

First, the PA exams are bad. Reading questions routinely ask questions that involve interpretation, or worse yet, matters of opinion, and proceed from the belief that there is only one correct answer. Only one correct interpretation. Only one correct opinion.

I've read questions that clearly have two or more correct answers available. The student's task is not to read and interpret-- the student's task is to try to deduce what the test writer wants the answer to be. Inferring the intent of standardized test writers is not a completely useless skill, but it has some limited utility. And yet it is squarely in the PA State Curriculum.

(I could provide examples of these questions, but then I would be liable for all sorts of penalties and possible loss of job because I'm not allowed to know what the tests say or to share that information with anyone. The tests are Top Secret. Maybe that's to maintain test security and intergrity, or maybe it's for the same reason that the Emperor's courtiers don't let him go out in his new clothes.)

Second, the higher-order critical thinking skills included in the CCNS (that's Common Core National Standards) are not assessable on a standardized test. It's great that the CCNS purports to support the kind of critical thinking involved in reading a complete novel, then analyzing and synthesizing themes by way of the literary analysis tools that we English teachers value, then expressing those insights in well-developed expressions of solidly-crafted writing. But that's not going to be on the test. It can't be. What's going to be on the test is some short piece of out-of-context reading followed by some multiple-choice questions that require the student to infer what point about a single aspect of a single small sample the test-developers thought needed attention.

You do not assess higher-order thinking skills with objective tests. No, not even with questions that call for a paragraph or two of answers, to be scored by either a computer program or a bunch of minimum-wage workers in a test-scoring sweatshop. You assess these kinds of skills with large-scale projects, such as papers or oral presentations or web-based multi-path computer creations. Then you have them scored by someone who is expert in the material and who knows exactly what expectations are appropriate for the students, and who will devote hours to carefully examining what the student has produced. It's not quick, and it doesn't necessarily produce nice, neat numbers-- but it's the right way to do it.

It's true that PA could be doing far worse than the choices in this last move. It says something about the state of government oversight of education that really bad choices now qualify as some of the best choices actually being made.

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