Common Core-ification of the SAT

In The Story Behind the SAT Overhaul, College Board president David Coleman tells the New York Times what the exam will look like in a few years.

Coleman gave me what he said was a simplistic example of the kind of question that might be on this part of the exam. Students would read an excerpt from a 1974 speech by Representative Barbara Jordan of Texas, in which she said the impeachment of Nixon would divide people into two parties. Students would then answer a question like: “What does Jordan mean by the word ‘party’?” and would select from several possible choices. This sort of vocabulary question would replace the more esoteric version on the current SAT. . . . The Barbara Jordan vocabulary question would have a follow-up — “How do you know your answer is correct?” — to which students would respond by identifying lines in the passage that supported their answer.

All this sounds a lot like the emphasis in Common Core standards, which Coleman helped write.

The math section will focus on problem solving and data analysis, linear equations and the “passport to advanced math,” which will test “the student’s familiarity with complex equations and their applications in science and social science.”

The SAT revisions are a  big mistake, writes Peter Wood on Minding the Campus.

David Coleman, head of the College Board, is also the chief architect of the Common Core K-12 State Standards, which are now mired in controversy across the country.  Coleman’s initiative in revising the SAT should be seen first of all as a rescue mission.  As the Common Core flounders, he is throwing it an SAT life preserver.

The exam will be “dumbed down” to serve a “social justice” agenda, writes Susan Berry on Breitbart.

Rick Hess is “unwowed.” It’s supposed to be a more rigorous test, but the vocabulary expectations will be “dumbed down,” Hess writes. 

The College Board announced the new test would put an end to the “tricks” that had made test prep so effective, advantaging students whose families could afford it. . . .  I’d bet that within twelve months, the prep folks will have devised strategies to help coach “close reading” and otherwise adjusted to the new test.

Eliminating the mandatory essay is supposed to promote fairness and test validity, writes Hess. Not so long ago,  the essay was introduced to promote fairness and test validity.

Finally, he worries about “the Common Core’ification of the SAT.”  By revising the SAT to match Common Core standards, College Board risks politicizing the exam  and disadvantages students in non-Core states.

SAT goes back to 1600

By 2016, the SAT will drop the required essay, bringing a perfect score back to 1600, simplify vocabulary, cover fewer math topics and more closely resemble what students learn in high school, College Board has announced. Students won’t lose quarter points for wrong answers on multiple-choice questions, a policy designed to penalize random guessing.

Khan Academy will provide free test-prep tutorials online, reports the Washington Post.

“It is time for an admissions assessment that makes it clear that the road to success is not last-minute tricks or cramming, but the learning students do over years,” said David Coleman, the College Board’s president.

Students will be able to finish the exam in three hours, if they skip the optional essay section, which will take 50 minutes. (To avoid exhaustion, students can take the SAT II composition test on another day.)

The math section will tighten its focus on data analysis, problem solving, algebra and topics leading into advanced math. Calculators, now permitted throughout the math section, will be barred in some portions to help gauge math fluency.

The section now called “critical reading” will be merged with multiple-choice writing questions to form a new section called “evidence-based reading and writing.” Questions known as “sentence completion,” which in part assess vocabulary, will be dropped. Analysis of passages in science, history and social studies will be expanded.

And each version of the test will include a passage from documents crucial to the nation’s founding, or core civic texts from sources such as President Abraham Lincoln or the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

The vocabulary will focus on “words that are widely used in college and career.” For example, “synthesis” is used in college, said Coleman.

Carol Jago, a past president of the National Council of Teachers of English, who serves on a College Board advisory panel, said the test revisions would “reward students who take high school seriously, who are real readers, who write well.” She said she was loath to drop from the exam a word such as “egalitarian,” which appears in one College Board practice test. But she said: “Maybe we can live without ‘phlegmatic.’ ”

The essay never caught on with college admissions officers, reports the New York Times.  Writing quickly, with no time for research or revision, isn’t a college skill.  

The new SAT will be more like the ACT, which has been attracting more students. However, the ACT includes a science section, while the SAT will have only a science reading passage.

“Obscure” words give us powers of description, clarity and insight, writes Andy Smarick on Flypaper. “Words enable us to explain, and an infinitely complex world requires an expansive vocabulary so we can be clear and precise.”

When grownups take the SAT

SAT Taking the SAT as an adult is a harrowing experience, writes Elizabeth Kolbert in The New Yorker.

She was inspired by Debbie Stier, a 46-year-old mother who took the test seven times in hopes of motivating her son, a B student. Obsessed with earning a perfect score, Stier tried various SAT-prep methods. She ended up with a book, The Perfect Score Project.

Since 2005, the SAT has included an essay. Kolbert had to write on whether progress requires struggle and conflict. From reading Stier’s book, she knew the key to scoring well is a clear thesis. “Declare, don’t waffle,” Stier advises.  “Pick a position and then bang away at it, the way you might at a piñata, or a rabid dog,” Kolbert puts it.

There was no time to argue the premise or question the definition of progress. Kolbert went with “No pain, no gain.”

I ended up writing on the Manhattan Project, despite my misgivings about whether the prospect of nuclear annihilation should count as an advance. When I got to the point of quoting Robert Oppenheimer’s famous line “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,” I couldn’t remember exactly how it went, and so, heeding Stier’s advice—“Details count; factual accuracy doesn’t”— I made something up.

Kolbert, whose goal was to avoid humiliation, doesn’t report her scores.

Stier tells all. As a high school student in 1982, she received a below-average 410 on the verbal and a 480 on the math. But she was able to go to Bennington College and build a successful career as a book publicist. Stier didn’t think that would work for her son.

No longer, she’s concluded, can a kid from an affluent suburban community expect to waltz his or her way into a decent college, and from there back into an affluent suburban community.

On her fifth try, Stier scored a perfect 800 on the writing section, 740 in reading and 560 in math.
Her son, Ethan, did well enough on his SATs to get into Loyola University in Baltimore. Test prep taught him to “set goals and work hard,” he believes. “You have to have all the basic skills down before you try to learn any tricks because without a solid base of math and grammar, you won’t be able to answer the questions fast enough on the test.”

Still, his mother is doing test prep differently with her daughter. Before they start test prep, “I’m having her go back and shore up the fundamentals of math, grammar and reading,” Stier says. “I have her read the New York Times every day and we go over all the vocabulary words she doesn’t know, and we discuss the articles, starting with the main idea, which is a great exercise for the SAT reading section.”

It sounds educational.

Test more, not less

Testing is under attack, but the solution is more testing, not less, argue Russ Whitehurst and Katharine Lindquist on Brookings’ Chalkboard.

New Common Core tests demand more of students, pushing down proficiency rates even in suburban schools, they write. That’s accelerated the push to test only in a few grade levels.

Linda Darling-Hammond, who advised one the consortia developing the new tests, recommends three tests — once in elementary, middle and high school — while still breaking out scores for “vulnerable” groups.

Her proposal would end value-added evaluation of teachers and schools, they write.

. . .  value-added calculations at the teacher level depend on the difference between the test scores of a teacher’s students at the end of the school year and the test scores of those same students at the end of the previous school year.  The annual gain in test scores of the teacher’s students, with some additional statistical information, is the teacher’s value-added.  

. . . Value-added can’t be calculated for many teachers as it is, but in the tested grades and subjects in which it can be estimated, it provides an important point of validation for other more widely deployed measures such as classroom observations. It is also the basis for calculating the school’s value-added, e.g., the test score gains between 3rd and 5th grade for all the students attending a particular elementary school relative to the gains in other elementary schools.

The fewer kids who are tested the more unreliable the scores: Testing at only one grade level “makes results nearly meaningless,” especially for the “vulnerable” subgroups, Whitehurst and Lindquist conclude.

Testing more is the answer, they write.

Consider what would happen to the pervasive test-prep sessions that consume weeks of class time in many schools leading up to the end-of-the-year test if students, instead, spent an hour or so monthly being tested on content drawn from their lessons in the previous few weeks.   Under this scenario the high stakes tests blend into the tests and quizzes that good teachers have always given their students regularly, and that research shows without a doubt increase student learning.

Monthly tests (on computers, I assume) would give teachers feedback in time to adapt their teaching.

Chicago school rations bathroom visits

A Chicago elementary school, facing closure for low test scores, is rationing bathroom visits, reports Anthony Cody in his Ed Week Teacher blog. Here’s the memo sent to teachers:

Dear Faculty,

Welcome back and Happy New Year! In order to maximize student learning and reduce the loss of instructional time, we are implementing two new restroom policies.

1. Designated Restroom Times – Take your class to use the restroom only during your allotted time so that multiple groups of students are not competing to use the facilities. Also, the expectation is that the restroom break should last only five minutes. Before leaving for the restroom, clearly communicate the behavioral expectations and the time limit. Use your watch or stopwatch to time the students and praise them when they meet the behavior and time expectations. . . .

2. Restroom Passes – In addition to scheduled restroom breaks, students will be given restroom passes to use if they need to use the restroom outside of the scheduled time. Students will be given two restroom passes to use between now and the end of the quarter. They can choose to hold on to them and trade them in for a reward at the end of the quarter. 

. . . Have students fill in their names as soon as they receive them. Passes are invalid if names are crossed out for another name.

For the upper grades, students can use one teacher’s pass in another classroom, but they still only get the same number of passes per quarter.

Use a class roster to have student initial next to their name to indicate that they received the passes.

Have students fill in the “time out” and “time in” and then turn the pass in to the teacher when finished. This will help them practice the CCS of telling time with both digital and analog clocks.

This micromanagement shows “intense pressure to raise test scores,” writes Cody. He provides another memo with bulletin board guidelines.  

Bulletin Boards should reflect the academic rigor and the differentiated instruction of the Common Core State Standards that are taking place in the classroom and school.  Bulletin board work should . . . be attractive, stimulating learning stimuli — not mere decoration.  No worksheets are allowed and avoid commercial materials.  In addition, each bulletin board must have an “I Can” statement in student-friendly language, rubric, specific feedback, title, and a brief (2-3 sentences) description of the activity that took place to produce the work.  Classroom bulletin boards should have current work (nothing past 2 weeks).

One wonders: Why is there so much teacher turnover? (Yes, that’s sarcasm.)

My very large high school locked most of the restrooms to prevent smoking. (Teachers had rebelled against restroom patrol duty.) I learned planning and self-control.

Test prep can prevent remediation

Some community college students who fail placement tests don’t really need remedial classes, researchers say. Colleges should tell students their scores matter and give everyone a practice test, they recommend.

Duncan disses ‘white suburban moms’

Why the resistance to Common Core standards? “White suburban moms are learning “their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan told state superintendents Friday.

That’s annoyed Common Core critics.

Duncan believes the alternative is to say, “Let’s lower standards and go back to lying to ourselves and our children, so that our community can feel better,” said aide Massie Ritsch in an e-mail to the Washington Post. 

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, back the Core, but slammed the rollout:  “You think the Obamacare implementation is bad? The implementation of the Common Core is far worse.

Arne Duncan is right, says RiShawn Biddle, a strong Core supporter.

A worksheet for kindergarteners on how to fill in test bubbles –don’t color the pictures! — is for sale on TeachersPayTeachers.com, reports EAG News. Maggie’s Kindergarten charges $5 per download for the test prep practice sheets, which cover Common Core (and non-Core) skills.

Authors: Testing kills love of reading

Testing kills children’s “love of reading,” according to a bunch of children’s authors and illustrators who signed Fair Test‘s open letter to President Obama. Judy Blume, Maya Angelou and Jules Feiffer are the big names.

. . . requirements to evaluate teachers based on student test scores impose more standardized exams and crowd out exploration.

We call on you to support authentic performance assessments, not simply computerized versions of multiple-choice exams. We also urge you to reverse the narrowing of curriculum that has resulted from a fixation on high-stakes testing.

Our public school students spend far too much time preparing for reading tests and too little time curling up with books that fire their imaginations.

If children’s love of reading has declined in recent years, blame multimedia, responds Patrick Riccards in Are you there, God. It’s me, Eduflack.

Do we blame the bubble sheet, or do we blame the multitude of options now competing for a young learner’s attention?

Honestly, I’m getting a little tired of testing being blamed for all that is perceived wrong in our country.  . . . We ignore that testing has been a part of our public schools for as long as we’ve had public schools.  We overlook that testing data can play a meaningful role in improving both teaching and learning.  We avoid the true debate, a discussion about ensuring the value of testing and the use and application of high-quality assessments.

You know what really kills the love of reading? Not being able to read very well.

‘Listen’ to students who hate testing

Frustrated with test prep, Ankur Singh took time off from college talk to students, teachers and parents about the “dehumanizing” effect of standardized testing. Here’s the trailer for Listen.

Hirsch: If kids learn content, they’ll ace tests

Students will ace Common Core language arts tests if they’ve learned history, civics, literature, science and the fine arts, write E.D. Hirsch on the Core Knowledge Blog. But it’s a big if, concedes Hirsch, who backed the new standards.

He quotes a comment from an “able and experienced teacher” on the blog: “A giant risk, as I see it, in the implementation of Common Core is that it will spawn skills-centric curricula. Indeed, every Common Core ‘expert’ we hear from seems to be advocating this approach.”

The best-selling books about teaching the Common Core advocate techniques for “close reading” and for mastering “text complexity,” independent of content.

. . . students’ ability to engage in “close reading” and to manage “text complexity” is highly dependent on their degree of familiarity with the topic of the text. And the average likelihood of their possessing the requisite degree of familiarity with the various topics they encounter in life or on tests will depend upon the breadth of their knowledge. No amount of practice exercises (which takes time away from knowledge-gaining) will foster wide knowledge. If students know a lot they’ll easily learn to be skilled in reading and writing. But if they know little they will perform poorly on language tests—and in life.

The new Common Core standards call for “a well-developed, content-rich curriculum” that is “coherently structured,” writes Hirsch. But will schools switch their focus from teaching skills to teaching the knowledge children need to understand what they read?