Tuesday, October 22, 2013

When Does the State Test Debate Begin?

The debate over Common Core continues to rage on here in Indiana.  But when are we going to start talking more about the state test?  Most state test items that I've examined do very little to assess the kind of reading, writing and thinking that ostensibly will be a part of the consortia's upcoming CCSS-aligned assessments.  Take a look for yourself.  Compare the kinds of reading, writing, and vocabulary sample prompts included on ISTEP+ with those that have been released by PARCC and Smarter Balanced.  While ISTEP+ does a mostly adequate job in using short constructed response items as a basis for assessing comprehension, its restricted response items typically require students to cite much less evidence than do the evidence-based and technology-enhanced sample items released by the consortia.  Further, there are no authentic texts used on ISTEP+; items typically reflect one standard instead of multiple standards (this further perpetuates the "checklist mentality" underscoring most school and district curriculum maps); and ISTEP+ writing prompts do not require students to analyze, synthesize or trace ideas or themes in more than one source to draft an extended response.

Worst of all, despite well-written informational and opinion writing standards in Indiana's current framework, ISTEP+'s writing tasks reflect zero, yes ZERO, explanatory or opinion writing.  All writing tasks on ISTEP+ are focused on writing narratives and, while the prompts require students to cite "details," none of the details are connected to what students read.  No wonder narrative and evidence-free writing dominates most classrooms!  PARCC and Smarter Balanced seek to rectify this problem.  Here is one of the item guidelines PARCC provides to test writers: "Many writing prompts typically used on large-scale assessments have required students to respond to a quote or brief passage disconnected from reading grade-appropriate complex text(s). The Common Core State Standards for ELA/Literacy, particularly Writing Standards 8 and 9, require students to demonstrate their ability to write using and analyzing texts. Consequently, PARCC desires innovative writing prompts that clearly demonstrate that students can use what they have read to compose, whether they are composing narrative or analytic writings."

Yes, I know, we haven't seen a full test yet from either consortia and there are concerns about cost, technology glitches (Indiana's mess this past spring is evidence of this), and school readiness.  But, for the first time since the advent of standards-based reform, these tests offer us an opportunity to privilege the kind of thinking that good standards frameworks, like those in Massachusetts and Indiana, have been seeking to encourage.

Since the advent of No Child Left Behind, state tests have been used as a basis for a number of high-stakes decisions from school performance ratings to school takeovers to teacher evaluations.  With state tests driving policymaking the way it has been, teachers would be silly not to use what they know about state test items to drive their curricula.  This has resulted in a dumbing down of the curriculum as educators seek to prepare students for the kinds of uninspired, one-dimensional test items evidenced on ISTEP+ and many other state tests from around the country.  And here's where CCSS supporters and critics alike seem to miss the point: With mediocre state tests driving instruction in such a powerful way, no set of state standards--whether they are rated as an "A" by groups like Fordham or deemed "world class" or "internationally benchmarked" by the spate of oft-cited curriculum "experts"--is going to be implemented the way it was intended.

So Indiana, listen up: These tests may not be the panacea for the decade-long flat line we've seen in the state with respect to literacy achievement, but they may offer a giant step forward in changing the way we think about how and what we teach.

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