Standards won't stick

Robert Pondiscio explains Why Standards Aren’t Sticky at Core Knowledge Blog. He starts with a military analogy:  “Commander’s Intent” is designed to clarify goals without micromanaging tactics. Standards can’t do for education what CI did for the military because we lack “a shared understanding and deep experience with the tactics needed to achieve the desired results,” Pondiscio writes.

The draft reading standards put up for public comment this week by the Common Core State Standards Initiative can’t “stick” because they are built on a flawed model of reading as a transferable skill. By promoting even tacitly the idea the we can teach reading independent of content (decoding + reading strategies = the ability to comprehend everything), the standards offer little useful guidance for teachers, virtually ensuring that even these “fewer, clearer” directions will not be met. Only by describing specific texts and content across disciplines (making clear that comprehension equals background knowledge) with assessments aligned with those texts and content, can there be any hope of measurable progress.

Let’s be blunt: Find one single teacher drawing breath that needed a secretive committee of two dozen experts to tell her that high school students ought to be able to “discern the most important ideas, events, or information, and summarize them accurately and concisely.” This is not a standard, it’s a platitude. As a goal or statement of purpose, it offers as much guidance and direction as military orders to “win the war.” We do not lack clarity on our goals. We lack clarity on how to achieve them.

Is the standards movement a waste of time? Should we try to achieve consensus on effective strategies?

I’m atoning today — and fasting — so I’ll let cooler, better-fed minds deal with this.

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Comments

  1. Robert is correct to fight the good fight on platitudes in standards.

    But standards themselves matter much less than tests. The first choice is — tests or no tests. To have tests, you need standards.

    While there is plenty of grist for the food fight on what to include in standards, let’s look at the actual state tests.

    In each case, tests have paragraphs that kids are supposed to read and find the main idea. Many kids can’t read. Or are really bad at it.

    That was true 20 years ago and true now. But 20 years ago, this could be more easily hidden away.

    In badly-led schools and districts, standards and the accompanying tests accomplish nothing. Nothing works in these places.

    However in other places, the test is a tool that, when combined with other things, leads to greater learning.

  2. Andrew Bell says:

    Mike,

    Why do the tests matter? How do they foster learning?

  3. I’ve found tests to be tremendously enlightening when it comes to where the curriculum is breaking down… for instance, in Texas there is a steep drop-off at 9th grade Algebra, indicating something is missing from the curriculum, possibly.

  4. Andrew Bell, let us assume an education system where every adult employed (not just teachers but principals, administrative staff, textbook writers, etc), amply supplied with money is dedicated to learning, and also every kid is dropped off at school consistently every day unless health reasons recommend otherwise. Why could learning fail to occur in this situation?

    Well, perhaps teachers were picking ineffective teaching methods. For example, I’ve come across this guy on the internet who argues that teaching creativity requires giving students limits, on the basis that giving a student limits means that they can’t just repeat what they did last time.
    Meanwhile another web page lists as one of their way to encourage creativity: “Provide a classroom environment that allows children to explore and play without undue restraints. ”
    So we have two opposite sets of advice about how to teach creativity. Assuming that teaching creativity is something teachers in my hypothetical world should be doing, how is a teacher or a school to pick which method to use? They might be harming creativity, not helping it.
    The answer to this in medicine and in most other professions is to test. Figure out some relatively objective way of testing creativity (for example, perhaps, get the students to generate a wide variety of ideas and get a panel of adults who doesn’t know how each student was educated to independently evaluate the creativity of the ideas), and see which method results in the largest increase in creativity.
    There’s a fair bit more complexity to this approach, such as control groups, statistical significance, repeating the tests under a variety of different situations, etc, but that’s the basic idea, and it relies on some independent testing.

  5. “Why do the tests matter? How do they foster learning?”

    Properly used/applied, tests tell you if what you are doing is working.

    They can’t foster learning, but they can tell you if what you are *doing* is or is not fostering learning.

    As an example, if one has decided that 4th graders should be able to correctly add two digit positive numbers, a test can tell you if this is being achieved or not. If not, you might (or might not …) decide to change how you are teaching this.

    In this sense, tests can work kinda like a blood pressure monitor if one is trying to reduce blood pressure. The monitor by itself doesn’t cause your blood pressure to go down, but it can tell you if what you are doing is working.

    Of course, one can have very poor tests … and without some fairly broad consensus on what one is trying to achieve, the tests can’t help much even if properly done.

    -Mark Roulo

  6. Andrew Bell says:

    So,

    The tests are really for the teachers? Seems like we judge the students based on the things.

    As for education research, the ratio of the number of quality and worthwhile studies to the total number of studies is pretty close to zero, in my opinion.

    Education research will never be medical research, and the evaluation of medical interventions through studies is usually less compelling than the headlines would have you believe – really significant outcomes are rare.

    BTW, the idea that you can teach someone how to be creative seems absurd to me, but maybe that was just an example.

  7. Andrew,

    You make good points.

    Testmania sounds fruitful in theory. Perhaps it does provide meaningful insights to math teachers. But in language arts (my field) it seems a waste of time. What do I do with the knowledge that Marissa scored in the 32nd percentile on vocabulary? Give her a crash course that crams her mind with random vocabulary? Or show her AGAIN how to look for context clues to help her figure out what a difficult word means (reading strategies likes this, while all the rage, are shown to have minimal benefit). Even supposing this kind of differentiated attention were feasible, I do not believe the tests tell us enough to be able to give meaningful direct interventions or that we have interventions that can actually work. So what I end up with, after a week of laborious one-on-one reading testing and data entry, is essentially what I started out with: these kids are the good readers, these kids are the weak readers.

    Rather than waste our energies trying to obtain pseudo-precise diagnoses of kids’ deficiencies, we need to work on preventing those deficiencies in the first place with a meaty, content-rich curriculum akin to the E.D. Hirsch’s Core Knowledge sequence.

  8. The tests are really for the teachers?

    Well, I’d say the test results are for:

    (1) the teachers,

    (2) the school administration (e.g. if one teacher manages to consistently have kids who don’t learn [and we’ve randomized student assignment …] the principal might want to do something about this), and

    (3) the parents.

    For older students it would also be for the students themselves (“hey, I don’t know this as well as I thought and it is a pre-req for this next class!”).

    You also might toss in that tests might be for the people in charge of curriculum/textbook selection (“hmmmm, we switched to this new thing and the kids aren’t learning as much …”).

    Well designed/implemented tests are feedback … meaningful feedback is good.

    Seems like we judge the students based on the things.

    “We” probably do, but we should be judging the student progress based on the things. Scoring at the bottom 10% (of a well designed/administered/etc. test) says something about how well a given student has mastered the specified material. We *can* blame the student if we want to, but that is a choice. What we shouldn’t do is assume that the student being at the bottom 10% (or 5% or whatever) doesn’t matter. It most likely does. At this point it is up to the adults to figure out what they want to do (summer school, repeat the grade, switch schools, give up, whatever).

    -Mark Roulo

  9. Andrew Bell, was your initial question about why do tests matter a serious question, or were you just trying to make an anti-testing point?

  10. The problem with testing is that it’s a precise measure of an imprecise process. Let’s say I get a student’s test back and it turns out she botched a question that required her to make an inference in a passage about farming practices in Ancient Egypt. It’s just as likely that the deficit in her understanding was tied to a lack of background knowledge of Ancient Egypt, the Nile, agriculture, flooding or another subject. But that’s not what we’ll do with the data. We’ll assume she needs more practice with the “skill” of making inferencing, which is not a skill at all.

  11. Let’s say I get a student’s test back and it turns out she botched a question that required her to make an inference in a passage about farming practices in Ancient Egypt. It’s just as likely that the deficit in her understanding was tied to a lack of background knowledge of Ancient Egypt, the Nile, agriculture, flooding or another subject. But that’s not what we’ll do with the data. We’ll assume she needs more practice with the ‘skill’ of making inferencing, which is not a skill at all.

    Work with me here, please.

    The way I read this, you are claiming that the problem with testing is that the data is used incorrectly to take inappropriate corrective measures. Is that what you are saying?

    If so, my initial thought would be that the testing (and the results from it) are not the problem…

    (not that the tests couldn’t be improved … in your example, we might get enough data to figure out if the problem was just when reading about Egypt or about all subjects. Additionally, we might have more and less difficult vocabulary and grammar to see if there were problems there).

    -Mark Roulo

  12. There are myriad issues here, but the overarching one is that if one insists on seeing reading as a transferable skill, you will also see each standard as transferable too. If I read a passage about baseball that says Jones “hit into an inning ending 6-4-3 double play to end the game” I can infer that it was the 9th inning and that there was one out when Jones came to bat. That doesn’t mean I’m an expert inference-maker. It means I know a lot about baseball and can fill in the gaps.

    But the way we view standardized tests is that if I get a question wrong that requires making an inference, I need more practice making inferences. That’s obviously not right. I couldn’t successfully make inferences from a passage about cricket, nuclear physics or horticulture, since I know nothing about those things.

    The only way to successfully gauge what students know and what reading skills they have or lack would be to tie the reading passages in a standardized reading test to the curriculum content they learn about in school in a particular year. Thus if 4th graders learn about Ancient Egypt, the water cycle and poetry in 4th grade, use reading passages from those subjects. This would have the benefit of making the curriculum coherent and giving a clearer picture of the comprehension skills students possess or lack. At present we’re more or less guessing.

  13. Is the standards movement a waste of time? Should we try to achieve consensus on effective strategies?

    No. The base problem is that we can no longer achieve consensus on anything very important. Our disagreements are too deep for us even to make sense of one another’s arguments.

    We can make some institutions work at the local level among smallish groups of more or less like-minded people. We can form civilizing smaller communities.

    Any attempt to nationalize anything will lead to contention and bickering that we can’t get past. Strategies are no less controversial than standards.

    The the dreams of national consensus are now fantasies. We have cultivated our differences and now we reap what we have sewn.

  14. I assume that transferable doesn’t mean contentless. If one hopes to learn by reading one is hoping that some aspect of it is transferrable.

  15. Andrew Bell says:

    To me it’s not a matter of agreeing on the standards. There are plenty out there. Pick one if you must. But whether kids read King Arthur stories in 4th grade or read something else generally accepted as worthwhile isn’t really the point.

    Standards don’t teach. Teachers teach. I tell my daughter not to pick classes by the title, but by the teacher/professor. Find the good ones and you’ll learn something interesting no matter what the topic.

  16. To me it’s not a matter of agreeing on the standards. There are plenty out there. Pick one if you must. But whether kids read King Arthur stories in 4th grade or read something else generally accepted as worthwhile isn’t really the point.

    The trouble is that if you don’t have standards, there’s a significant risk that students will read King Arthur stories in the 1st, 2nd, 4th and 5th grades, and never get to the Ancient Greek and Roman myths, nor to Huckleberry Finn, or other foundational works of literature that English-speaking writers expect literate readers to have encountered. Reading is not merely about the ability to turn letters on a page into sounds, it’s about understanding the references that authors make in their writings, as authors can’t spell everything out.

    Compulsive readers may get this anyway, I worked my way through Ancient Greek and Roman myths during primary school out of my own interest. But not every child lives in a family where the Saturday morning routine is trip to the supermarket followed by trip to the library (where the librarians learnt to recognise us approaching and hurry to open another counter to process our books), nor does every child have parents who know all this themselves.

    I tell my daughter not to pick classes by the title, but by the teacher/professor. Find the good ones and you’ll learn something interesting no matter what the topic.

    I tell high school and university students to keep taking maths courses, as they keep doors open (no, I don’t have a degree in maths, but throughout my engineering and economics degrees I took the maths-heavy courses, eg Electromagnetic Fields, Signal Processing, Econometrics). I have no objections to learning something interesting per se, but I think each course should open doors for future learning as well. And for this, course titles are important.