Confused by Core tests

Kids have been field-testing new Common Core exams — and parents have been trying practice tests posted online. The verdict: The new tests are much harder — partly because of poorly worded questions.

Carol Lloyd, executive editor at GreatSchools, is a fan of the new standards, but worried about the test. She went online to try practice questions for both major common-core assessment consortia—Smarter Balanced and PARCC (the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers)—for her daughter’s grade.

Many of the questions were difficult but wonderful. Others were in need of a good editor.

A few, however, were flat-out wrong. One Smarter Balanced question asked students to finish an essay that began with a boy waking up and going down the hall to talk to his mother. Then, in the next paragraph, he’s suddenly jumping out of bed.

A PARCC reading-comprehension question asked students to pick a synonym for “constantly” out of five possible sentence options. I reread the sentences 10 times before I realized that no words or phrases in those sentences really meant “constantly,” but that the test-writer had confused “constantly” with “repeatedly.” Any student who really understood the language would be as confused as I was.

If these are the test questions they’re sharing with the public, “what are they doing in the privacy of my daughter’s test?” asks Lloyd.

Natalie Wexler, a writing tutor at a high-poverty D.C. high school, took the PARCC English Language Arts practice test for 10th-graders.  A number of questions were confusing, unrealistically difficult, or just plain wrong,” she writes.

Question 1 starts with a brief passage:

I was going to tell you that I thought I heard some cranes early this morning, before the sun came up. I tried to find them, but I wasn’t sure where their calls were coming from. They’re so loud and resonant, so it’s sometimes hard to tell.

Part A asked for the meaning of “resonant” as used in this passage:

A. intense B. distant C. familiar D. annoying

Looking at the context — it was hard to tell where the calls were coming from — Wexler chose “distant.”  The official correct answer was “intense.” Which is not what “resonant” means. 

Another passage described fireflies as “sketching their uncertain lines of light down close to the surface of the water.” What was implied by the phrase “uncertain lines of light.”

She chose: “The lines made by the fireflies are difficult to trace.” The correct answer? “The lines made by the fireflies are a trick played upon the eye.”

Wexler did better on a section where all the questions were based on excerpts from a majority and a dissenting opinion in a Supreme Court case about the First Amendment. “But then again, I have a law degree, and, having spent a year as a law clerk to a Supreme Court Justice, I have a lot of experience interpreting Supreme Court opinions,” she writes.

The average D.C. 10th grader won’t be able to demonstrate critical thinking skills, Wexler fears.

. . .  if a test-taker confronts a lot of unfamiliar concepts and vocabulary words, she’s unlikely to understand the text well enough to make any inferences. In just the first few paragraphs of the majority opinion, she’ll confront the words “nascent,” “undifferentiated,” and “apprehension.”

Most D.C. students “will either guess at the answers or just give up,” Wexler predicts.

Everyone’s favorite fad is now ‘core aligned’

Rialto Unified’s idiotic essay assignment — is the Holocaust a hoax? — was justified as meeting the Common Core’s call for teaching “critical thinking” skills, writes Greg Forster on Jay Greene’s blog. The Core didn’t dictate the assignment, he writes. But it opened the back door.

When “you set yourself up as the dictator of the system, you officially own everything that happens in the system,” he writes.

This is simply what you get when you announce that you have set a single standard for a huge, sprawling, decentralized system with literally millions of decision-makers, very few of whom have much incentive to do what you want, but very many of whom have some pet project they’d like to push through using your name to do it.

If Reform X is truly voluntary, fewer systems adopt it, “but those that adopt it will really adopt it.” Or it’s possible to “force, bribe and cajole systems to adopt Reform X,” then tell them exactly how to run their schools to enforce the reform.

Common Core standards used the “force, bribe and cajole” strategy to get states to say they’re adopting the reform, then let them implement it, Forster writes. The result:  Everyone  will adopt their preferred fads and “call it Reform X.”

Implementation — how a thing is done day by day in the real world — is everything, writes Peggy Noonan.

Essay: Is the Holocaust real or propaganda?

Did the Holocaust really happen or was it “a propaganda tool used for political or monetary gain?” In a Southern California district, Rialto Unified, eighth graders were told to use three sources — including one that calls the murder of Jews a “hoax” — to research the “debate.” Then they were to write an essay, citing their research, to “explain whether or not you believe the Holocaust was an actual event in history, or merely a political scheme created to influence public emotion and gain.”

In an email, school board member Joe Martinez defended the assignment as an exercise in critical thinking. “This will allow a person to come to their own conclusion.”

Their own conclusion? “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts,” said Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

After more furor, the district said teachers would revise the assignment.

Teachers, who were doing a unit on the Diary of Anne Frank, came up with the Holocaust debate idea, no doubt thinking it would meet Common Core standards’ call for argumentative writing. (Anne Frank also is a hoax, according to the assigned denial site.) They’ll think of something else.

It’s just a coincidence — really — that the primarily Latino district is run by an interim superintendent named Mohammad Z. Islam.

If kids can tell fantasy from reality …

Preschoolers are good at distinguishing fantasy from reality, according to a new study, reports the Wall Street Journal.

Children understand the difference. They know that their beloved imaginary friend isn’t actually real and that the terrifying monster in their closet doesn’t actually exist (though that makes them no less beloved or scary). But children do spend more time than we do thinking about the world of imagination. They don’t actually confuse the fantasy world with the real one; they just prefer to hang out there.

If little kids can tell what’s real and what’s pretend, why can’t school administrators and teachers distinguish between fantasy and reality, asks Glenn Reynolds, aka Instapundit, in a USA Today column.

At South Eastern Middle School in Fawn Grove, Pa., for example, 10-year-old Johnny Jones was suspended for using an imaginary bow and arrow. That’s right – - not a real bow and arrow, but an imaginary bow and arrow. A female classmate saw this infraction, tattled to a teacher, and the principal gave Jones a one-day suspension for making a “threat” in class.

A 7-year-old Maryland boy was suspended for gnawing a Pop Tart into the shape of a gun. An 8-year-old Arizona boy was threatened with expulsion for his drawings of ninjas and Star Wars characters and interest in zombies. A six-year-old boy was charged with “sexual harassment” for kissing a girl. “So much for Tom Sawyer and Becky Thatcher,” writes Reynolds, a University of Tennessee law professor.

The “education industry” purports to teach “critical thinking” to children, writes Reynolds. But, apparently, not by example.

Field trips really are educational

Visiting an art museum improved children’s knowledge about art, critical thinking skills, historical empathy and tolerance, concludes a University of Arkansas study. It broadened their minds. Benefits were particularly large for students from rural areas and from high-poverty schools.

Photo © The Walters Art Museum, Susan Tobin
War News from Mexico

Artist: Richard Caton Woodville , 1825 – 1855 

When the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened in Arkansas in 2011, many school groups wanted to tour.

Researchers created matched pairs among the applicant groups based on similarity in grade level and other demographic factors, and then randomly assigned school groups to receive a tour that semester or at a later time. Students in selected schools took a tour lasting roughly one hour, during which they viewed and participated in discussions about five different paintings.

Asked to write a short essay on a painting they hadn’t seen before, the field trippers “noticed and described more details.”

 To measure historical empathy, researchers employed a series of statements and asked students to agree or disagree, including, “I have a good understanding of how early Americans thought and felt.”  Tolerance was also measured with statements to which students could express agreement or disagreement, ranging from “People who disagree with my point of view bother me,” to “I think people can have different opinions about the same thing.”

Students who toured on a field trip were more likely than expected to return to the art museum with their family.

More than half of schools throughout the country eliminated planned field trips in 2010–11 according to an American Association of School Administrators survey.

Thinking about critical thinking


Cognitive scientist Daniel Willingham talks about critical thinking at the Harvard Initiative for Learning and Teaching.

Most parents are pragmatists

Nearly all parents want their child’s school to provide a strong core curriculum in reading and math and  stress science and technology, concludes a new Fordham study. They want their children to learn good study habits, self-discipline, critical thinking skills and speaking and writing skills. But, after that, parents have different priorities, concludes What Parents Want.

Pragmatists (36 percent of K–12 parents) assign high value to schools that, “offer vocational classes or job-related programs.” Pragmatists tend to be less educated with lower incomes. They’re also more likely to be parents of boys.
Pragmatists

Jeffersonians (24 percent) prefer a school that “emphasizes instruction in citizenship, democracy, and leadership.”

Test-Score Hawks (23 percent), who tend to have academically gifted and hard-working children, look for a school that “has high test scores.” If they’re not satisfied, they’ll switch schools.

Multiculturalists (22 percent), who are more likely to be urban, liberal and black, want their children to learn “to work with people from diverse backgrounds.”

Expressionists (15 percent), more likely to be liberals and parents of girls, want a school that “emphasizes arts and music instruction.”

Getting their child into “a top tier college” is important to Strivers (12 percent), who are far more likely to be African American and Hispanic.

After the “non-negotiables” (reading, math and science) and the “must-haves” (study habits, critical thinking, communications), “desirables” include “project-based learning, vocational classes, and schools that prepare students for college and encourage them to develop strong social skills or a love of learning,” the study found. Rated “expendable” are small school enrollment, proximity to home and updated building facilities. Teaching love of country and fluency in a foreign language also was a low priority for most parents. “When forced to prioritize, parents prefer strong academics,” Fordham concluded.

There’s a lot of overlap between Test Score Hawks and Strivers: Add them together and you get  35 percent of parents focused on academic success, nearly as large as the Pragmatist group.  Jeffersonians and Multiculturalists don’t overlap as much, but arguably both groups are concerned about preparing children to be citizens in a diverse society.

Smartphones, stupid people

Smartphones Mean You Will No Longer Have to Memorize Facts, argues David Pogue in Scientific American.

When my father was growing up, his father offered him 25 cents to memorize the complete list of U.S. presidents. “Number one, George Washington. Number two, John Adams …”

A generation later my dad made the same deal with me, upping the reward to $5. (The prize had grown, he explained, “because of inflation and because there are more presidents now.”)

This year I offered my own son $10 to perform the same stunt. My son, however, was baffled. Why on earth should he memorize the presidents?

Nowadays, he argued, “everybody has a smartphone” and always will.

Smartphones will outsell regular old phones in 2013, writes Pogue. “Having a computer in your pocket is the norm.”

Should we mourn the loss of memorization skills? “Having a store of ready information” could be more fundamental and important than other obsolete skills, he speculates. But, no, he decides.

. . . we’ve confronted this issue before—or, at least, one that is almost exactly like it. When pocket calculators came along, educators and parents were alarmed about students losing the ability to perform arithmetic using paper and pencil. After hundreds of generations of teaching basic math, were we now prepared to cede that expertise to machines?

Yes, we were. Today calculators are almost universally permitted in the classroom. . . .

In the end, we reasoned (or maybe rationalized) that the critical skills are analysis and problem solving—not basic computation. Calculators will always be with us. So why not let them do the grunt work and free up more time for students to learn more complex concepts or master more difficult problems?

And how has that worked?

With students freed from memorizing facts, maybe they’ll “focus on developing analytical skills (logic, interpretation, creative problem solving) and personal ones (motivation, self-control, tolerance),” Pogue writes.

And maybe winged pigs will play hockey on the ice in hell.

1912 test for 8th graders: Could you pass?

In 1912, 8th graders in rural Kentucky were expected to know things about  the Gulf Stream, the secretions of the liver, copyright, the battle of Quebec and how to spell (and define) “adjective.”

Were children smarter then? asks the Daily Mail.

Certainly, learning by rote was fashionable. Critical thinking was not. One commenter argued it’s not a bad thing to memorize basic geography.

Doing so allows me to read a newspaper article and understand where it is taking place. Memorizing historical facts allows me to interpret that article and put modern day occurrences into context.

She continued: ‘I work with a lot of “smart” kids who might read about the situation in Israel/Palestine, but can’t find those places on a map, and have no idea about their basic history. Thus, no context, rendering “smart” somewhat irrelevant.’

Others argued poor and working-class children dropped out before 8th grade. However, 845 of 1,032 children aged 10 to 14 in Bullitt County were attending school in 1910. By contrast, only half of children 15 to 17 were in school.

Different goals for different folks

Achievement should be defined broadly, argues Ted Kolderie, who works on redesign of K-12 education, with the Center for Policy Studies, in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

Bob Wedl, formerly Minnesota commissioner of education, asks: “If proficiency meant being able to speak two languages, which students in Minnesota would be ‘high-achieving’?”?

He asks, too: Why don’t we define the “gap” as being below-proficient and close that gap first?

And: Do all students need to be equally good in all subjects? Standards for aircraft differ based on what a plane is going to do. Why not for students? Proficiency might be enough in math for a student heading into the arts. It would surely be too low for one aspiring to an engineering career.

Education reformers — “middle-class folks with advanced degrees and aptitudes that are verbal, conceptual and abstract” — have decided that achievement is “doing well what they do well,” Kolderie writes.  Instead of pushing everyone to do well in school and go to college, we should “recognize that all young people can learn better and need to learn better, but that different students will do well at different things.”

Defining achievement down may sound reasonable, but it’s not, responds RiShawn Biddle. To start with, academic achievement is connected to success in non-academic endeavors.

. . . it is hard to engage in critical thinking without having a strong knowledge base that only comes from being literate, numerate, fluent in science, and knowledgeable about history and philosophy. This is especially important because critical thinking involves dealing with abstractions, the ideas at the very heart of civilization and society; even seemingly basic concepts such as the Golden Rule, as well as discourses mundane and critical, are formed from the complex interplay between ideas, facts, and morals. A child with a working understanding of, say, algebra, will also be able to understand why the Laffer Curve matters in discussions about tax cuts.

Low-income, minority parents have “learned the hard way about the consequences of not having the high-level reading and math skills needed for the high-paying blue- and white-collar jobs,” he writes. They know their children won’t have a future in the job market if they’re not “literate, numerate, and knowledgeable about the world around them.”

High-quality schools serving disadvantaged students, such as KIPP charters, have shown that “poor and minority children can succeed if they are provided comprehensive college-preparatory curricula, high-quality instruction, help in the form of intensive reading and math remediation, and the nurturing cultures of genius in which they are more than just future athletes and musicians,” Biddle concludes.

Remember “natural rhythm?”