Fewer Resources, Harder Tests: Common Core in the Last Days of Obama

Image credit: Modified from "PlayIn029," by Sarah Ji, Flickr. Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

Editor’s note: This post originally appeared on Steven Singer’s GadflyOnTheWallBlog. Check out his great work documenting the attacks on public education and the teachers, parents, and students who are fighting back. Check out all his work HERE.

The bell hadn’t even rung to begin class yet, but Ce Ce already had enough.

She saw the pile of standardized test look-a-like sheets on the front desk and immediately asked if she could go to in-school suspension.

I’m not kidding.

She’d prefer to spend the day in silence doing homework isolated from the rest of the class than practicing high stakes testing with her peers.

And she’s not alone. This happens every year now. As assessment season gets closer, administrators push teachers to do test prep. And students revolt.

I’m not exactly sure why. Test replicas are not my favorite things to do, either, but they’re not THAT bad. I don’t think it can be my teaching since the mutiny usually happens before I’ve even begun.

It’s the testing. Pure and simple. Some students are so demoralized by the very prospect of skill-and-drill that spending one more second reading passages and filling in bubbles seems a fate worse than death.

And I can’t really blame them.

In the last two years, Pennsylvania has modified its mandatory assessments until it’s almost impossible for my students to pass.

Bureaucrats call it “raising standards,” but it’s really just making the unlikely almost unthinkable.

Impoverished students have traditionally had a harder time scoring as well as their wealthier peers. But the policy response has been to make things MORE difficult. How does that help?

Consider this: If a malnourished runner couldn’t finish the 50 yard dash, forcing him to run 100 yards isn’t raising standards. It’s piling on.

Oh. Both your arms are broken? Here. Bench press 300 lbs.

Both your feet were chopped off in an accident? Go climb Mt. Everest.

That’s what’s happening in the Keystone State and across the country. We’re adding extra layers of complexity to each assessment without regard to whether they’redevelopmentally appropriate or even necessary and fair to gauge individual skills.

Where Common Core State Standards have been adopted (and Pennsylvania has its own version called PA Core), annual tests have become irrationally difficult. That’s why last year’s state tests – which were the first completely aligned to PA Core – saw a steep drop off in passing scores. Students flunked it in droves.

Where the previous tests were bad, the new ones are beyond inappropriate.

Take Text Dependent Analysis (TDA). It’s something we’ve always done in language arts classes, but it’s meaning has subtly changed thanks to PA Core.

Two years ago, it used to denote that students had to refer to the text when writing essays. Now it’s come to mean something more – referring to the text (or texts) with at least two degrees of complexity.

On the Reading section of the Pennsylvania System of School Assessment (PSSA) tests, students must peruse several passages and respond in writing.

Before PA Core, middle school students might have had to read one passage and then explain what its main idea was. This would require them to cite specific examples from the text. For instance, “This passage is mostly about bears because the author writes about hunting them in the Klondike, the ways in which their habitat is affected and their hibernation instinct.” Then students would have to go into more detail highlighting sections of text that support this.

Now students have to read TWO passages and write about something that pervades BOTH but is still tremendously complex. For instance, a 6th grade example released from the state has students read a poem and a folktale about people tricking others into sharing food. Then they have to write about the theme of both pieces and analyze how it is developed in each text using specific references.

The texts concern nothing most students would find interesting and are difficult to understand for children of that age. Moreover, properly developing an essay of this type should be done over the course of several classes. But middle schoolers are expected to do this in a single testing session.

Test proctors are instructed to put aside about 80 minutes for the essay and several related multiple choice questions though, technically, students can take as long as they’d like. They could be given extended time to write for several hours if they want. But most children at this age simply don’t have that kind of stamina. They are not physically and mentally prepared to sit and concentrate like that.

It’s a task many adults would find challenging, but we’re expecting 10- and 11-year-olds to do it!

Can middle school students (ages 10-14) handle this level of complexity, especially in such a short amount of time?

Honestly, it depends on the child. Everyone matures at a different rate. However, for most of the students I have taught in over a decade of middle school experience as a Nationally Board Certified teacher with a Master’s Degree in Education, it is my professional opinion that this level of mastery is out of reach.

In fact, at an in-service training, administrators at my building had the entire teaching staff attempt this essay to show us what was expected from students. The general consensus was that it was unreasonable.

Requiring this level of difficulty simply ignores children’s basic humanity. Most of my students come to me not knowing how to write a good essay. If they were all computers, I could break up everything they needed to know into small bits, give it to them piecemeal over the course of the year, and they would learn. But they are not computers – they are children.

That’s why they rebel. We’re demanding more from them than they can give.

It might be different if we met them half way. It might be more reachable if higher expectations came with additional help.

If my students had any chance to achieve at this level so early in their cognitive development, we would need to bring in a team of writing specialists, a flurry of councilors, nutritionists, and wrap around social services. However, no resources have been added to help students meet these added testing hardships. In fact,Pennsylvania has slashed school budgets by almost $1 billion annually.

All the responsibility is thrown on the underfunded schools as if the few teachers who haven’t already been furloughed can somehow perform magic.

A surgeon can’t operate without tools. Nor is he expected to do the job of nurse and physical therapist as well.

It’s a matter of fewer resources and harder tests, then blame teachers when it doesn’t work.

It’s not just bad policy; it’s a denial of reality.

Add to that the social, cultural and economic aspects. Lawmakers pretend everyone is starting from the same point, but this is demonstrably untrue.

I teach mostly black and brown kids at a high poverty district. Many of my studentsonly get a hot meal at school. They’re malnourished, violence-scarred, and under-equipped. They have few books in the home. Their parents aren’t around because the adults are working multiple jobs to support them. They live in violent neighborhoods where gunshots, drive-bys and premature death are commonplace. And you think they somehow have the same chances of scoring well on standardized assessments as children without these problems!? You expect them to prioritize standardized testing!?

And after years of being subjected to child abuse as education policy, the only thing they’ve learned from testing is that they’re not good at it and they might as well not try.

Is it any wonder some of them would rather sit in our school’s version of prison than stay in class and practice test taking strategies?

We’re running up against the nature of cognition and how young minds grow. We’re ignoring the social, cultural and economic conditions in which these children live. And we’re pretending this is somehow a fair and just accounting of children’s academic skills and their teachers’ effectiveness.

Children need to be engaged. They need to see how an assignment affects their lives. They need to care. They need intrinsic motivation, which is almost impossible to find for a test that is essentially extrinsic.

Our current education policy is the equivalent of holding a gun on children and demanding they perform almost impossible tasks.

It is time to stop the violence. It’s time to end the child abuse.

But is anyone listening?

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