Sunday, May 5, 2013

(De) Testing the Common Core

The surge of Common Core State Standards, once hailed as a turning point in education, is under fire from the left and the right for a variety reasons but for me the most pressing issue is the assessment piece  and the tentacles that surround it. Taking a look at the anchor standards (ELA) for reading, writing, speaking and listening I like the language that relates to the upper levels of Bloom's taxonomy. We want our students (and adults!) to be great at interpreting, analyzing and evaluating all kinds of text. It's imperative that they be great communicators able to write clearly and coherently as well as speak effectively, using rich language, in the form of a monologue or dialogue where critical listening skills come into play. Developmental psychologists debate the age appropriateness of the grade level standards and while increasing the sophistication of the application of the anchor standards with age makes perfect sense to me I'm not sure explicitly outlining what that looks like works well with authentic assessment. Therein lies snake in the weeds for me, the assessment.

sample PAARC item
Having a solid set of standards and significant content is an essential piece of effective instructional design. Teachers should be starting with the end in mind and designing around authentic assessment of those standards and content. But how authentic are the standardized tests being designed around the Common Core? Having looked at some sample items from different companies like Smarter Balanced and PAARC I can appreciate the layered nature of the questioning shown in the image. This is much better than the isolated 4 choice multiple choice questions that we've seen for decades but as a student I would wonder "why"? Good questioning in a contrived context leaves less time for quality instruction and leaves thoughtful students with the feeling of being exploited. Being subjected to a random set of irrelevant questions so someone, somewhere can judge me and/or my school isn't exactly the most motivating scenario. But testing is just a necessary evil that students and schools just need to "get through it" right?  As the father of a 4 and 6 year old I acknowledge that sometimes there are indeed situations that necessitate doing things just because they need to be done but I'd argue that evaluating student and school progress is not one of them.

What's the answer?

So if not a standardized testing system then what? The answer is not easy and that is the problem, using standardized tests are the easy way out. While the nation's guidance counselors may disagree, administering one test that can be scored quickly and used to compare kids is relatively simple but the limits on the reliability and validity are questionable. The Common Core skills are a small part of what makes our students successful in college and career and limiting our evaluations to those skills is insulting. Much has been made of the progressive schooling in Finland and while the problems and challenges are not the same as in the US it is interesting to note some key differences. As this Smithsonian article points out the overhaul included a much different approach to teacher preparation that has allowed for statements like this: "Finland has vastly improved in reading, math and science literacy over the past decade in large part because its teachers are trusted to do whatever it takes to turn young lives around." So should we trust our teachers? Speaking in general terms yes, we should trust the intentions but having faith in their training is another thing. 

The parent in the video above remarks, that if our teachers don't know their student's learning by April we have a problem and she's absolutely right. While many of our schools may know scores of their students they haven't learned how to authentically assess the teaching and learning going on in the building, and there is a difference. It's imperative that we train our teachers to design instruction that effectively assesses our students so we can trust their judgement and feedback to be used in a way that standardized tests only hope to accomplish. This reform includes building systems, like tuning protocols, into our schools that ensure quality with narrative feedback and creating a culture of critical collaboration among students and staff. Instead of teacher evaluations based on checklists they should be having conversations around meeting essential elements. If we knew that our teachers were doing a great job of assessing students on the local level why would we need a behemoth of a testing system? With the concern of assessing teacher quality being a driving force behind the creation of our testing culture this will take a massive retooling by our teacher training institutions and a re-visioning of local quality controls. This isn't tinkering with incremental change, it will require a reboot of nearly every aspect of our educational system. Consistent calibration with established norms to ensure quality work at each school would allow students to be assessed within the normal parameters of their daily "school work" instead of being subjected to days of external testing.
The continuation of the "Culture of Achievement" that remains focused on preparing for tests and comparing scores is a dead-end road with a low ceiling for our students, schools country. Demanding that our legislators and schools focus on high quality, meaningful work that results in authentic assessment will produce more engaged and prepared students. Quality education will never be an easy proposition but grassroots efforts and campaigns seem to be swinging the discussion away from the relative "efficiency" of standardized tests and I'm hopeful we can help them gain enough strength to scale the mountain.