April 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
Let me begin with a brief discussion of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). The Common Core has a lot of problems. My issues have less to do with the actual content but with implementation and an over-reliance on standardized testing.
1. Implementation is a nightmare because resources vary among states, districts, and schools. How are teachers going to present more challenging concepts to students when schools don’t even have the funding to enact compensatory programs (i.e., programs that make learning more accessible to students who need extra help)? The economic inequality that existed in the NCLB era still exists today… and it’s perhaps worsened. How are students going to commit themselves to education if they struggle with poverty?
2. Too much standardized testing. Alfie Kohn observes that when you rely on standardized tests, you’ll always have a group of students who fail. The validity of standardized testing is actually predicated on student failure: if everybody passed, then curriculum is too easy and teachers aren’t doing their jobs! Student failure is counterproductive to education, which ought to be an empowering and, in the words of bell hooks, liberatory process.
The English language arts standards aren’t bad. I can’t vouch for the mathematics standards because my areas of expertise are American literature and composition (and kvetching, but that’s a post for another day). Nor can I say anything concrete about the development of science and social studies standards, other than the development of the latter will be a political nightmare. I digress.
I like the ELA standards because they are intentionally vague. They show conceptual goals, but they don’t prescribe methods of instruction. Therefore, teachers have a lot of freedom to differentiate, implement scaffolding, and choose culturally-relevant texts — in other words, to connect with their students and make the learning process more accessible and engaging.
But the standardized tests. Oh, the standardized tests.
And this brings me to the actual purpose of my writing this entry. Are there other ways of measuring student progress and evaluating teacher performance than mass testing? Surely there exist fairer, more engaging, more equitable assessments that measure mastery of CCSS-mandated concepts. This article by Katrina Schwartz describes a proposed waiver system in which schools that regularly perform well on tests can opt out of standardized testing and self-report progress. According to Syna Morgan, chief system performance officer for Douglas County Schools, “If you have a set of criteria and you have a clear delineation of what the learning outcomes need to be, then you could measure them in very different ways.” Standardized testing need not be the only way to assess knowledge and performance.
We return to problems of economic inequality. What about less-affluent schools and districts? Would they be able to effectively implement alternative assessments? Perhaps, given the necessary resources (which have proved elusive), but not so under the proposed waiver system:
One big push against the waiver bill Douglas County is proposing is that it excludes lower-performing schools. It’s inequitable to allow high performing schools to opt out of state testing and yet require the schools that might benefit the most from alternative teaching practices to remain beholden to a test that doesn’t provide teachers any information about how to improve or where students lack knowledge.
Alternative assessments are only as effective as they are equitable. Systems such as this proposed waiver program, though ostensibly progressive, could only widen knowledge and performance gaps between affluent and less-affluent schools and districts.
So what other options do we have? Project-based learning? Portfolios? Formative assessments? How would this data be reported to the state? How could all schools have access to effective alternative assessments?