(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…”

aristotle

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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Care To Learn

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Image: Rutu Modan

“What does it take to be a good parent? We know some of the tricks for teaching kids to become high achievers. For example, research suggests that when parents praise effort rather than ability, children develop a stronger work ethic and become more motivated.

Yet although some parents live vicariously through their children’s accomplishments, success is not the No. 1 priority for most parents. We’re much more concerned about our children becoming kind, compassionate and helpful. Surveys reveal that in the United States, parents from European, Asian, Hispanic and African ethnic groups all place far greater importance on caring than achievement. These patterns hold around the world: When people in 50 countries were asked to report their guiding principles in life, the value that mattered most was not achievement, but caring…

People often believe that character causes action, but when it comes to producing moral children, we need to remember that action also shapes character. As the psychologist Karl Weick is fond of asking, “How can I know who I am until I see what I do? How can I know what I value until I see where I walk?”

Adam Grant, “Raising a Moral Child” 4/11/14

When you think about all the rating, ranking, and sorting of students and teachers that is demanded by the Common Core, can’t help but wonder….

Does too much emphasis on student achievement, data-driven instruction, proficiency levels, independent mastery, and testing of students actually stifle and suppress academic, social, and emotional growth?

Does telling elementary and middle school students they are not “college ready” increase or decrease the likelihood that they will be ready for college by graduation?

Rather than repeatedly testing students to see if they are ready for college and careers shouldn’t we provide numerous learning activities and vocational pathways for students to actually practice their college and career skills?

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What Makes A Good Teacher?

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One looks back with appreciation to the brilliant teachers, but with gratitude to those who touched our human feelings. The curriculum is so much necessary raw material, but warmth is the vital element for the growing plant and for the soul of the child.  ~ Carl Jung

Using students’ standardized test score to measure the quality of teachers is like counting patients’ cavities to evaluate the skills of a dentist or using patients’ blood pressure and cholesterol scores at the end of the year to determine the effectiveness of their doctors.

While David Coleman expects compliant Common Core teachers to teach to the test, most parents including myself want experienced and passionate teachers who respect and honor each child as individual learners and appreciate their special strengths and weaknesses.

A more meaningful measure of teacher effectiveness and quality would be how he or she raises the aspirations and dreams of students rather than how much the teacher raises standardized test scores.

Learning is a lifelong process and self-directed journey of discovery. It is far more important that a person is well educated than trying to determine if they have been educated well.

As Bruce Cameron wisely said, “Not everything that counts can be counted, and not everything that can be counted counts.”

This past school year Diane Ravitch shared on her blog a wonderful letter written by an elementary school principal reminding students what standardized tests don’t measure.

As you read this letter consider how many of these immeasurable qualities we also value in our public school teachers?

We are concerned that these tests do not always assess all of what it is that make each of you special and unique. The people who create these tests and score them do not know each of you– the way your teachers do, the way I hope to, and certainly not the way your families do. They do not know that many of you speak two languages. They do not know that you can play a musical instrument or that you can dance or paint a picture. They do not know that your friends count on you to be there for them or that your laughter can brighten the dreariest day. They do not know that you write poetry or songs, play or participate in sports, wonder about the future, or that sometimes you take care of your little brother or sister after school. They do not know that you have traveled to a really neat place or that you know how to tell a great story or that you really love spending time with special family members and friends. They do not know that you can be trustworthy, kind or thoughtful, and that you try, every day, to be your very best… the scores you get will tell you something, but they will not tell you everything. There are many ways of being smart.

Diane Ravitch, “What the Tests Don’t Measure” 11/13/13

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Follow Your Heart

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Excerpts from Jim Carrey’s 2014 Commencement Speech at M.U.

“Fear is going to be a player in life, but you get to decide how much. You can spend your whole life imagining ghosts, worrying about the pathway to the future, but all it will ever be is what’s happening here, and the decisions that we make in this moment, which are based in either love or fear. 

So many of us choose our path out of fear disguised as practicality. What we really want seems impossibly out of reach and ridiculous to expect, so we never dare to ask the Universe for it.

I can tell you from experience, the effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is. My father could have been a great comedian, but he didn’t believe that that was possible for him, and so he made a conservative choice. 

Instead he got a safe job as an accountant, and when I was 12 years old, he was let go from that safe job, and our family had to do whatever we could to survive.

I learned many great lessons from my father, not the least of which, was that you can fail at what you don’t want, so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love.

That peace that we are after lies somewhere beyond personality. Your need for acceptance can make you invisible in this world. Don’t let anything stand in the way of the light that shines through this form. Risk being seen in all of your glory.

You are ready and able to do beautiful things in this world, and as you walk through those doors today, you will only have two choices: love or fear. Choose love, and don’t ever let fear turn you against your playful heart.”

College and Career Readiness: A Data Dilemma

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The Common Core will not be able to deliver on the “promise” of college readiness for all students if the data used to inform classroom instruction and measure student achievement, is not valid or reliable.

It is dishonest and dispiriting to tell any student, regardless of ability or disability, that he or she is not “ready” for college based on a GPA, standardized test score, or some other data point.

Developmentally delayed and disabled students who are resourceful, creative, persistent, self-reliant, compassionate, curious, confident, open-minded, courageous, resilient, honest, healthy risk-takers and reliable will be successful in post-secondary studies and careers.

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

When it comes to success in college and careers, the ability to independently master complex informational text is far less important than students having learned how to maximize their talents and master themselves.

It is foolish to devote weeks of rigorous sit and learn class time prepping and testing students to supposedly prepare them for college and careers at the expense of vigorous non routine and content rich learning activities that cultivate student agency which is essential for the appropriate and effective application of hard skills.

The Common Core “diet” of close reading and standardized testing has students spending much more time staying connected to text, than learning how to connect with diverse people and ideas.

Not surprisingly, a recent Gallup-Purdue study suggests that we should reconsider and revise the metrics and data we use to assess and predict career readiness.

“When it comes to being engaged at work and experiencing high well-being after graduation, a new Gallup-Purdue University study of college graduates shows that the type of institution they attended matters less than what they experienced there…

Instead, the study found that support and experiences in college had more of a relationship to long-term outcomes for these college graduates. For example, if graduates recalled having a professor who cared about them as a person, made them excited about learning, and encouraged them to pursue their dreams, their odds of being engaged at work more than doubled, as did their odds of thriving in all aspects of their well-being.

And if graduates had an internship or job in college where they were able to apply what they were learning in the classroom, were actively involved in extracurricular activities and organizations, and worked on projects that took a semester or more to complete, their odds of being engaged at work doubled as well…”

Gallup-Purdue Study, “Life in College Matters for Life After College” 5/6/14

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“The current excessive emphasis on getting short-term economic value out of college will have students attending to their safety net at the precise time when they should be thinking about swinging on the trapeze…

They would be, as Mark Twain put it, allowing schooling to get in the way of one’s education. They would be hanging out on the safety net while never reaching for the trapeze.The college experience encompasses a rich collection of endeavors inside and outside the classroom that shape and prepare young people for success later in life.

Without extracurricular interaction, they’re unlikely to develop the ‘soft skills’ so many employers seek, the nimbleness that comes from managing time across activities, and the essential ‘distractions’ that become as enriching as their studies (and may even become part of a career down the road)…

Steve Jobs didn’t know that a calligraphy course he took on a whim would pay off years later when he launched that first Apple computer. And that’s the point. There’s no way to know. So students should err on the side of opening up, rather than limiting, their possibilities.

By taking a turn on that trapeze every chance they get, their college years will be filled with trials and errors and diverse, engaging experiences. Will it be risky? Sure. But it will also be thrilling and, oh, so rewarding, too.

Some might even call it valuable.”

Carpe College! Blog – “Consuming College: Trapeze or not Trapeze?”, Mike Metzler 

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“There’s way more to college than book learnin’. There are sporting events, concerts, intramural activities, art shows, theater, political demonstrations, philanthropic endeavors, guest speakers, and every possible club activity under the sun, from a cappella singing to rock climbing to Quidditch (Yes, there are even intercollegiate Quidditch competitions nowadays).”

~ Mike Metzler, “Carpe College!”

Build Your Dream

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The lessons the Common Core teaches our students about achieving success in school, work, and life are misleading, and the empty rhetoric about college and career readiness is misguided.

The Common Core evaluates student competency and proficiency in regards to a very narrow and shallow set of learning standards.

This test-centric and data-driven approach to learning is more about repeatedly measuring student skills than actually cultivating them.

While competent and proficient workers are often retained and maintained by employers, it is imaginative and courageous risk-takers who will advance and succeed by creating their own opportunities to learn and lead.

“Now today, I’m going to give you the six rules of success. But before I start, I just wanted to say these are my rules. I think that they can apply to anyone, but that is for you to decide, because not everyone is the same. There are some people that just like to kick back and coast through life and others want to be very intense and want to be number one and want to be successful. And that’s like me…”

~ Arnold Schwarzenegger, “Six Rules for Success” University of Southern California, May 15, 2009