(What’s So Special ‘Bout) Rigor, Grit and Standardized Testing?

In his 1979 song, “(What’s So Funny “Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding?” Elvis Costello wonders;

So where are the strong
And who are the trusted?
And where is the harmony?
Sweet harmony.

‘Cause each time I feel it slippin’ away, just makes me wanna cry.
What’s so funny ’bout peace love & understanding?

Imagine how different education reform and the Common Core State Standards would be if Elvis Costello had been their chief architect and lead writer rather than David Coleman, who infamously declared in April, 2011 at a NY State Department of Education Presentation;

As you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think.

Rigor vs. Vigor

The Common Core’s exclusive focus on rigorous math and ELA standards may be well intended, but these standards fail to prepare students for the diverse expectations and vigorous challenges of post-secondary learning and working.

According to the Common Core web site;

The standards are: Based on rigorous content and application of knowledge through higher-order thinking skills

And Barbara Blackburn has explained that;

True instructional rigor is “creating an environment in which each student is expected to learn at high levels, each student is supported so he or she can learn at high levels, and each student demonstrates learning at high levels (Blackburn, 2012).”

Rather than focusing on rigorous math/ELA standards and skills that prepare students for a standardized test, K-12 learning programs should focus on vigorous, purposeful, and transferable standards and skills that are relevant to students and prepare them for life.

Learning should be a self-directed and spirited journey of discovery. Students should be “free to learn” as they explore their interests and pursue their passions rather than simply following a curriculum map and standardized pathway to each Common Core learning standard.

Grit vs. Passion

Another justification or rationale for the rigorous Common Core Standards is that students must experience frustration and failure as they struggle with higher standards and harder tasks if they are going to develop grit and be more successful in school and life.

While resilience and perseverance are essential life skills, the notion that the best and most effective way to cultivate these traits is by compelling students to complete rigorous math and ELA activities is foolish.

The Common Core supports a test-centered and data-driven model of classroom instruction rather than a learning program that is student-centered and passion-driven. Unfortunately, ed reformers thirst for data now trumps our students thirst for knowledge.

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The Common Core “demands” that all students achieve at higher levels and demonstrate deeper understandings when they are engaged in learning activities that are primarily determined by the standards and delivered by the teacher.

Rather than focusing our efforts on rigorous learning that cultivates student grit, we should be creating vigorous learning activities and experiences that capture students’ interest and stimulates their own desire to learn, also known as “flow”.

According to Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, students achieve flow when they find a challenge or task so enjoyable they will pursue it as a reward in itself.

When a person experiences flow they want to do more of an activity leading to advanced skill development and mastery of the task.

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi further explains in, ”Thoughts About Education” …

“…Yet it seems increasingly clear that the chief impediments to learning are not cognitive in nature. It is not that students cannot learn, it is that they do not wish to…

 Of the two main forms of motivation — extrinsic and intrinsic — I focus primarily on the second kind. Although both are needed to induce people to invest energy in learning, intrinsic motivation, which is operative when we learn something primarily because we find the task enjoyable and not because it is useful, is a more effective and more satisfying way to learn…”

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Standardized Testing vs. Authentic Assessment

A standardized test does not provide a reliable or comprehensive measure of student learning or the skill level they have attained. A standardized test measures a students ability to apply the skills he or she has learned at a particular moment in time and in a standardized way.

The fact that a student does not demonstrate the ability to properly apply a numeracy or literacy skill during the administration of a standardized test is not evidence or proof that the students has not acquired that skill.

A standardized test may reveal how a student performs at a moment in time, but it cannot determine and tell you why this happened or predict how the student will perform in the future.

There are so many factors and variables that can impact student performance on a standardized test that is misleading and false to claim that student scores are a reliable means of predicting “college readiness” or measuring teacher quality.

A standardized  test does not provide meaningful information to support and improve student learning because the score only reveals what questions the student answered wrong, but not the reason why.

It would be foolish for a teacher to adjust or modify instructional practices based on a standardized test score when the new group of students they teach the following year have different cognitive abilities and disabilities.

The real time data generated by informal and formative classroom assessment ( informal + formative = informative) is the gold standard of effective student-centered classroom instruction, while the data generated by standardized and summative testing is about as useful and valuable as “fool’s gold”.

“Effective” teachers understand that actionable and meaningful feedback is essential to guide and support student learning, and this data should be provided “in the moment” while the student is actively engaged in a learning process.

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Clearly, the decision to align and couple standardized tests to the Common Core is more about satisfying NCLB and teacher accountability requirements (VAM) than about informing classroom instruction and improving student  learning.

Learning standards serve as a framework and guide that generally dictate and determine the boundaries and limits of learning in the classroom so that students share common learning experiences that are sequenced and synchronized in order to compare, rate, and sort students according to their performance on a standardized test.

The terms rigor and grit are part of ed reformers narrative and rhetoric used to sell the Common Core Standards and convince parents that sterile, scripted, and data-driven instruction is superior to vigorous, customized, and passion-driven learning that is not controlled and restrained by the format and design of a standardized test.

K-12 education programs that claim to prepare students for “college and careers” should cultivate a wide array of cognitive, social, and emotional competencies that are useful and transferable life skills rather than focusing on a narrow set of numeracy and literacy skills that are measured by a standardized test.

It is far more important that students are free to learn in school and well educated, than subjecting them to continuous testing to determine if they have been educated well.

Today many schools are eliminating vigorous extracurricular experiences that help students discover the ways they are “smart”, so they can devote more time to preparing students for rigorous standardized tests so the state can measure and compare how “smart” they are.

Successful adults understand that their achievements are less about standardized test scores and the subjects they learned in school, and more about self-efficacy and knowing how to learn in life.

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Common Core: Growing Pains or Growing Awareness?

April 20, 2011 John de Rosier editorial cartoon

Media reports have focused on a recent survey indicating a sharp decline in support for the Common Core among teachers. These reports have also included a variety of explanations and theories as to why this decline has occurred.

Unfortunately much of the speculation comes from Common Core cheer leaders who have limited teaching experience and do not have regular contact with students or teachers so they lack the wisdom derived from classroom experience along with any evidence to support their claims.

From my perspective, teachers no longer have confidence in the ability, or trust the motives, of the cognitively privileged but unqualified Common Core A-Team that was tasked with constructing National Learning Standards that should be RESPONSIVE, to the academic, social, vocational, and emotional needs of diverse learners.

Simply put, teachers have lost their patience and grown tired of the litany of disingenuous, contradictory, self-serving, and evidence-less claims.

Here is a partial list of problems and concerns regarding the efficacy of the Common Core State Standards…

 #1 Teaching To The Test

There is no better example of conflicting and contradictory statements than the issue of teaching to the test. Back in 2012, President Obama said

And one of the reasons that we have sought reforms to No Child Left Behind. I think it had great intentions. I give President Bush credit for saying, “Let’s raise standards and make sure that everybody’s trying to meet them.” But because so much of it was tied just to standardized testing, what you saw across the country was teaching to the test.

And I– I can’t tell you how many teachers I meet who say, “You know what? This makes school less interesting for kids. And as a consequence, I’m ending up really shrinking my curriculum, what I can do in– in terms of creativity inside of the classroom.” And that’s not how you or I, for example, when we think about our best teachers, we don’t think about studying a bunch of tests to see how we’re going to score on a standardized test

Recently U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan commented on the U.S. Department of Education Blog…

But the larger issue is, testing should never be the main focus of our schools. Educators work all day to inspire, to intrigue, to know their students – not just in a few subjects, and not just in “academic” areas. There’s a whole world of skills that tests can never touch that are vital to students’ success. No test will ever measure what a student is, or can be. It’s simply one measure of one kind of progress. Yet in too many places, testing itself has become a distraction from the work it is meant to support.

I believe testing issues today are sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools – oxygen that is needed for a healthy transition to higher standards…

Contrast the comments above with this excerpt from a 2011 Keynote Speech given by David Coleman, the chief author and architect of the Common Core State Standards…

… these standards are worthy of nothing if the assessments built on them are not worthy of teaching to, period…our top priorities in our organization, and I’ll tell you a little bit more about our organization, is to do our darnedest to ensure that the assessment is worthy of your time, is worthy of imitation.

It was Lauren who propounded the great rule that I think is a statement of reality, though not a pretty one, which is teachers will teach towards the test. There is no force strong enough on this earth to prevent that. There is no amount of hand-waving, there‟s no amount of saying, “They teach to the standards, not the test; we don‟t do that here.” Whatever. The truth is – and if I misrepresent you, you are welcome to take the mic back. But the truth is teachers do.

Tests exert an enormous effect on instructional practice, direct and indirect, and its hence our obligation to make tests that are worthy of that kind of attention. It is in my judgment the single most important work we have to do over the next two years to ensure that that is so, period.

So who are we to believe regarding teaching to the test?

No better way to learn if teachers will need to devote extra class time to training and test prep for the Common Core assessments than to look at a sample question like the one published in Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” Blog,

Consider this fourth-grade question on the test based on a passage from Pecos Bill Captures the Pacing White Mustang by Leigh Peck.

Why is Pecos Bill’s conversation with the cowboys important to the story?

A) It predicts the action in paragraph 4

B) It predicts the action in paragraph 5

C) It predicts the choice in paragraph 10

D) It predicts the choice in paragraph 11

Claims that the Common Core ELA literacy standards will prepare our children for college and careers are patently false and misleading.

The contrived and artificial Close Reading skills (see #2) required to answer the above test question are not realistic or properly aligned with the real life literacy demands of post-secondary learning and employment.

The convoluted format and design of Common Core test questions clearly call for test prep, as students will need time to practice and prepare for questions like this.

David Coleman’s comment and the sample test question above are evidence of the Data-driven philosophy and mindset of many Common Core enthusiasts who believe the “needs” of the test should drive instruction, rather than the literacy needs of the student.

Experienced educators appreciate and understand that the diverse needs of students must be the number one priority of any education program that claims to prepare students for adulthood and employment.

The misguided data-driven and test-centered approach means teachers are spending more and more class time training and preparing students for Common Core tests, rather than preparing them for life.

A 2012 Report: “Learning Lesson” details the results of a national teacher survey regarding Common Core implementation…

  • About half (51%) of elementary school teachers say that struggling students get extra help in math or language arts by getting pulled out of other classes; the most likely subjects are social studies (48%) and science (40%)
  • 59% of elementary school teachers report that social studies has been getting less instructional time and resources (28% middle school; 20% high school); 46% say the same about science (20% middle school; 14% high school)
#2 Close Reading

Close reading is a central focus of the the Common Core ELA Standards.
Students are expected to read and reread text, as they meticulously dissect and deconstruct passages while striving to determine “what the author is up to?”
Close reading is more than understanding and comprehending a reading, but “understanding how the text works”.

Timothy Shanahan explains

…A first reading is about figuring out what a text says. It is purely an issue of reading comprehension. Thus, if someone is reading a story, he/should be able to retell the plot; if someone is reading a science chapter, he/she should be able to answer questions about the key ideas and details of the text…

However, close reading requires that one go further than this. A second reading would, thus, focus on figuring out how this text worked. How did the author organize it? What literary devices were used and how effective were they?…


This process is very challenging and time consuming for advanced and grade level readers and is confusing, dispiriting, and not even independently obtainable for many weaker and learning disabled students.

More troubling is the fact that so many elementary students are losing time in other subject areas to spend extra class time on Close Reading activities when it is not an essential literacy skill for learning or work. Reducing time in other subject areas to focus on close reading is clearly about preparing students for close reading Common Core tests and not about preparing them for college and careers. The day-to-day reading demands of most jobs are NOT “rich and worthy” of close reading.

The National Institute for Literacy has identified and defined 16 content and national learning standards that will help students be “Equipped for The Future”. These standards do not require close reading skills. Instead they require literacy skills that are broad-based and transferable to real life learning situations where students and employees must “Read With Understanding”…

”define the knowledge and skills adults need in order to successfully carry out their roles as parents and family members, citizens and community members, and workers. Keeping a focus clearly on what adults need literacy for, EFF identified 16 core skills that supported effective performance in the home, community, and workplace.”


Teachers take their job very seriously and they have great admiration, respect, and high expectations for their students. More and more teachers do not support the Common Core Standards because they do not prepare students for the real life literacy demands of college and careers.
#3 Work-Based Learning
 
Many students’ academic and content area skills will improve if they were given the opportunity to enroll in a hands-on trade or vocational programs…
“Math used to be a struggle for 14-year-old Kathryn, until she fell in love with cars and started a hands-on project to build her own. Now the math matters and makes sense, and a whole new world of learning has opened up for her.”

Rather than just preparing students for college and careers, every student should have the opportunity to actually practice career skills by participating in internships and work-based learning experiences.

It is difficult for teachers to support the Common Core and take the college and career readiness claims seriously when there are no trade, vocational, or work experience standards, especially at a time when there is a growing demand for such workers

“The heavy proportion of older skilled-trade workers puts into focus more than just the pending retirement for baby boomers and oft-cited but rarely quantified gap between the skills that employers need and available workers possess. It also touches on the fact that American high schools have largely shifted their focus to preparing students for four-year colleges rather than vocational school.But just as training to become a welder or computer controlled machine operator isn’t for everyone, pursuing a college degree doesn’t fit every student’s skill set…”



#4 Teachers and employers do care about thoughts and feelings.

David Coleman’s infamous and insulting statement about thoughts and feelings reveals a lack of awareness and understanding regarding the needs and expectations of students and employees.Even more troubling is the fact that a person who would make such an insensitive and ignorant statement was given so much power and influence to design our National Learning Standards.
K-12 education programs should focus much more instructional time on helping students acquire and practice soft skills, if they expect them to master and apply hard skills in appropriate and effective ways. The authors of the Common Core continue to claim that the Standards, will properly prepare our students for college and careers, despite countless surveys and interviews regarding the critical importance of soft skills.
Clearly, thoughts and feelings do matter. Students who care and who feel cared for, are more engaged learners and employees are most engaged in their work when they feel a sense of passion and purpose.
Even PARCC recognizes the critical importance of soft skills and they have issued a disclaimer acknowledging that their own Common Core assessments will not provide a comprehensive and reliable measure of career and college readiness…
“A comprehensive determination of college and career readiness that would include additional factors (such as persistence, motivation, and time management…) is beyond the scope of the PARCC assessments in ELA/literacy and mathematics…Since these non-academic factors are so important, PARCC College- and Career-Ready Determinations can only provide an estimate of the likelihood that students who earn them have the academic preparation necessary to succeed in entry-level, credit-bearing courses.”
 
Here’s hoping the 2014-15 school year sees the retreat of the Common Core from the classroom and the return of common sense and increased teacher support for student-centered education reforms and learning standards that will prepare every student for the diverse challenges and opportunities of adulthood and employment.
As Robert Green Ingersoll said…
It is a thousand times better to have common sense without education than to have education without common sense.
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Equipped for the Future

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The problem with the Common Core’s mission to improve college and career readiness is not that these expectations are too high, but these standards are too narrow and specialized, so they do not prepare our students for the diverse real world reading and thinking challenges of life, school, and employment.

In April, 2014 the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported…

“In October 2013, 65.9 percent of 2013 high school graduates were enrolled in colleges or universities

About 6 in 10 recent high school graduates enrolled in college attended 4-year institutions. Of these students, 27.8 percent participated in the labor force, compared with 45.2 percent of recent graduates enrolled in 2-year colleges.

Recent high school graduates not enrolled in college in October 2013 were over twice as likely as enrolled graduates to be working or looking for work–74.2 percent compared with 34.1 percent.”

Since one third of high school students seek employment after graduation and many college students also participate in the labor force, the Common Core Standards should be revised and expanded to address the “work readiness” needs of all our students.

Equipped for the Future is a 1994 adult education initiative by the National Institute for Literacy that identified and defined 16 content and national learning standards that,

” define the knowledge and skills adults need in order to successfully carry out their roles as parents and family members, citizens and community members, and workers. Keeping a focus clearly on what adults need literacy for, EFF identified 16 core skills that supported effective performance in the home, community, and workplace.”

The National Work Readiness Council awards a National Work Readiness Credential that is aligned with Equipped for the Future applied learning standards. According to the National Work Readiness Credential Candidate Handbook

“The Work Readiness Credential (WRC) is a group of tests designed to determine if candidates have the skills they need to enter the workforce. A wide variety of workers, supervisors, managers, businesses, and government agencies have worked together to determine what a person needs to know to be a successful employee. The WRC shows that the person who earns it by passing all four tests has demonstrated knowledge and skills important to successful employment in entry-level positions. A student, job seeker, or worker who earns the WRC will have a national, transferable certification of skills and knowledge in entry-level employment.”

The Common Core State Standards focus primarily on very narrow and specialized literacy skills that require deep analysis and deconstruction of text for academic purposes called Close Reading

“…A first reading is about figuring out what a text says. It is purely an issue of reading comprehension. Thus, if someone is reading a story, he/should be able to retell the plot; if someone is reading a science chapter, he/she should be able to answer questions about the key ideas and details of the text…

However, close reading requires that one go further than this. A second reading would, thus, focus on figuring out how this text worked. How did the author organize it? What literary devices were used and how effective were they?…”

In contrast, the Work Readiness Credential indicates that a student has acquired a much broader, useful, and transferable set of literacy skills for a variety of purposes called; Read With Understanding.

The Guide: Getting Ready for the National Work Readiness Credential provides examples of proficient performance including…

Reading a magazine about typical behavior for toddlers, to figure out how to deal with a two-year-old’s tantrums.

Reading a brochure from a health clinic to learn about signs of depression and helpful tips for dealing with it.

Reading OSHA information about noise exposure, to solve a problem at work.

Reading information about voter eligibility in order to decide if one is eligible to vote in an upcoming election.

Reading information about financial aid for higher education to decide whether or not to apply for loans, and if applying for aid, to understand options available.

Reading Material Safety Data Sheets in order to get guidance about safely handling toxic materials in the workplace.

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Proponents of the Common Core claim that it will prepare students for the challenges of mastering informational text such as a college text book or an employee manual or even many of the activities listed above.

If you compare the Read With Understanding examples listed above to this sample close reading question that was published in Valerie Strauss’s “Answer Sheet” Blog, it is clear that this contrived and convoluted question is assessing a very narrow and specialized literacy skill.

This academic skill may serve students well when taking future Common Core ELA tests, but it certainly is not a broadly applicable reading comprehension skill that would be useful or transferable to many real life vocational reading tasks.

Consider this fourth-grade question on the test based on a passage from Pecos Bill Captures the Pacing White Mustang by Leigh Peck.

Why is Pecos Bill’s conversation with the cowboys important to the story?

A) It predicts the action in paragraph 4

B) It predicts the action in paragraph 5

C) It predicts the choice in paragraph 10

D) It predicts the choice in paragraph 11

In 2011, Equipped for the Future issued a Report on Correspondences between the EFF Curriculum Frameworks and the Common Core State Standards and the report found that…

“The two documents differ in that the Common Core focuses on academic (and to some extent, vocational) purposes for all, while EFF contextualizes skills within a fuller range of adult family-related, work-related, and civic purposes at all levels…

Another key area of difference is in what the “standard” attempts to describe. Each EFF content standard describes a transferable skill process that can be applied to a wide variety of adult purposes and tasks…

In contrast, the Common Core documents target discrete skills and sub-skills which, like other sets of K-12 standards, may lead teachers to focus only on each sub-skill and not also provide learning activities which help students apply and transfer their skills outside of the immediate learning situation…

There is also a difference in the way that Metacognition is addressed, with metacognitive strategies being discussed in the Common Core introductory materials but not in the standards document, and these strategies (surfacing/building on prior knowledge, monitoring learning and adjusting strategies to enhance it, etc.) comprising a prominent feature of the EFF Curriculum Frameworks.”

The choice seems pretty clear, we continue full speed ahead down the narrow and selective Common Core college prep and career readiness pathway or take time for a purposeful pause so the Standards can be revised and expanded to focus on a broader and much more inclusive education and workforce pathway.

Continuing down the Common Core “road” with ELA standards that focus primarily on selective and specialized literacy skills instead of broad-based, applicable, and transferable literacy skills, make as much sense as the US Education Department announcing a new initiative to improve U.S. bike riding skills by mandating that all children learn to ride a bike without the use of training wheels, and declaring the new National Standard for being a proficient and globally competitive bike rider is…NO HANDS.

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Performance Standards

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The Common Core’s emphasis on higher learning standards is well intended but poorly executed and evaluated. Standards are expectations of student learning and skill development. Skills must be acquired by students rather than imparted by teachers or the standards.

We are mistakenly evaluating student learning and predicting future outcomes based on how well a child meets a particular standard of performance at a predetermined moment in time regardless of individual circumstance, ability, or disability.

Availability of funding, class size, academic support programs, wrap around services, along with numerous other  “barriers to learning” that exist outside of school and beyond the reach of teachers, can also have an impact and diminish student performance.

Furthermore, cognitive skills emerge and develop differently in people depending on both genetic and environmental factors, and that is why K-12 education programs should focus on the acquisition and cultivation of individualized, customized, and transferable skills, rather than standardized ones.

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Conversely, learning activities that foster the development of foundational social and emotional skills and cultivate student agency should be standard practice and a primary focus of all K-12 programs.

Students learn differently and school programs that emphasize a standardized curriculum and standardized testing will not by osmosis standardize student skills and abilities or synchronize student learning.

Students must actively participate in the learning process and care to do better if their performance is going to improve.

Learning is not done to you.

learning is something you choose to do.

~Seth Godin

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Student agency and self-efficacy is an essential component of achievement and learning in school. The appropriate and effective application of hard skills is soft skills dependent.

Rather than a narrow focus on the acquisition of “college ready” numeracy and literacy skills measured by a standardized test, K-12 education programs should cultivate the development of diverse academic, social, and emotional skills that will prepare students for the real “tests” in life.

Common Core’s misguided emphasis on rigorous “college ready” math and ELA skills may be well intended, but in practice other critically important skills and vigorous learning experiences are crowded out and receive less attention in the classroom.

A broad-based and well balanced K-12 education program will help to assure that each child achieves his or her academic, social, and emotional potential as they acquire a comprehensive and customized set of life skills and “tools”.

A contractor may possess the literacy skills to understand building plans, permits, and blueprints along with the numeracy skills to construct a level, square, and properly angled structure but that is of little consequence if he or she lacks the self-confidence and courage to climb a ladder and the balance to work on a roof.

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Every person is unique and cognitive ability will always differ among our students. K-12 education programs must include activities and diverse experiences or “pathways” that cultivate academic, social, emotional, and vocational skills that will enhance and support student learning and growth throughout life.

Passion-driven learning respects students as individual learners with unique interests, talents, and abilities while data-driven Common Core education programs seek to rate, sort, and compare students according to a narrow and standardized set of math and ELA skills.

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Cognitively delayed and disabled students who are resourceful, creative, persistent, self-reliant, compassionate, generous, curious, confident, flexible, open-minded, courageous, resilient, and volunteer will succeed in college and careers.

Students who are academically and cognitively proficient but are selfish, lazy, hesitant, dishonest, unreliable, dispassionate, rigid, compelled, doubtful, indifferent, spiritless, unimaginative, and narrow minded will not be successful in college and work environments.

A more accurate and reliable indicator or predictor of “readiness” is not how well you perform on a standardized test at a particular moment in time, but whether you pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and continue learning and striving towards a higher level of performance.

It is foolish to claim that all high school graduates must first acquire the same “college ready” Common Core math and ELA skills in order to attend and succeed in college, when they just need to be “ready to learn” and apply the numeracy and literacy skills they do have in more advanced and challenging ways.

What would have been the likelihood of Michael Jordan being “career ready” if his K-12 schooling was focused primarily on acquiring the same math and ELA skills as his classmates at the expense of time spent discovering his passion and developing his unique and special athletic skills and abilities?

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