Unreasonable expectations and CCSS assessments

May 28, 2013

in 21st century schools, ed news and trends, hot topics

So last month I ranted a little bit about product placement on the new standardized tests in New York (as in, the brand names of cartoons and sneakers and soda being embedded in reading passages.)  Now that “testing season” is officially over in most schools, I’m really eager to hear from more educators who have seen CCSS-aligned assessments in their districts, and find out what’s really happening. I was going to title this post Are the new Common Core-aligned assessments unreasonable? But everything I’ve read and seen points to one unequivocal answer–yes–so let’s just start from there.

standardized testing

Pushback against the standards seems to be increasing. The RNC wants to shut down the Common Core. Six states are backing out of the Common Core, putting forward legislation to remove their obligations from CCSS implementation. (This article is the best I’ve seen on the topic of why certain groups are for and against the standards, and how support for the standards have shifted over time.)

Personally, I am disheartened by states talking about CCSS withdrawal when most schools still haven’t even figured out how they’re going to implement the standards yet. I like the idea of having a common set of standards taught in all states, and I like the Common Core State Standards themselves for the most part. They’re rigorous, but not impossible, and take a huge step toward eliminating the “mile wide, inch deep” curriculum problems I’ve bemoaned since my days as a student teacher. If we throw out the Common Core, THEN what? Start from scratch, spend billions more, and come up with something that’s pretty similar, anyway? I think we need a few years with these standards to see how they work. It’s way too soon to be giving up.

So my frustration is not with the standards themselves. It’s the assessments I’ve been seeing so far that really trouble me. (I especially dislike the eventual requirement that the assessments be completed online. Most schools are not even close to having the technology infrastructure to support this, and I’m not convinced it’s necessary or even desirable to do all standardized testing on the computer.) I don’t think the general public has any idea how much is being asked of our students, and so many of the expectations are clearly developmentally inappropriate.

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Consider this email I recieved from Learning Girl of The Ways They Learn blog. She’s a fantastic resource room teacher here in New York and not afraid to speak the truth about what happened when students in her school took the new CCSS-aligned state tests. She’s given me permission to share her concerns here:

I proctored 5th grade, which seems to have been the most disastrous as far as I can tell, but I heard they were all pretty rough. I’m not sure which part of the CCSS justifies that test; I was always at the top of my high-performing class and even I don’t think I would have been up to some of that language in 5th grade.

I just don’t understand how the higher standards translate into impossible tests. I do think the standards are ambitious, but they don’t actually say “What used to be considered 11th grade vocabulary is now to be taught at 5th.” I’m all for teaching/encouraging kids to think more deeply about what they read, process meatier content, or whatever it was supposed to be, but in my mind that never meant having 10-year-olds interpret Shakespearean-sounding prose or divine which of four similar-sounding statements the test makers deemed the “best” answer to a vague question.

In addition (or maybe not, maybe just more of the same complaint) I don’t see how preparing kids to be college-ready at 18 becomes synonymous with having them do college-level work at 10. What is wrong with having them progress through developmentally appropriate sequential stages until college-level skills emerge? What support is there for the idea that these skills should look the same at all ages, just at different levels? I don’t expect my 6-month-old to walk like an adult, just slower or shorter. I know that she can crawl at 6 months and toddle at 12 months (approx.) and when her body matures, the skills will come with it. I view academics much the same way, though with more complexity.

more than a test score

I’d love to hear what you’re experiencing with “Common Core-aligned” assessments in your district. Are they harder than what your students are used to seeing? Are they well-matched with the curriculum? What would you change about the way your students are tested? 

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Angela was a classroom teacher for 11 years and currently works as an instructional coach and educational consultant based in New York City. She's created a webinar series on pro-active behavior management and has written 3 books for educators. Check out the blog and free teacher resource pages for photos, tips & tricks, activities, printables, and more.

{ 19 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Dawn May 28, 2013 at 8:31 pm

I like the ccs. But I’m not a Republican. I have been using them for two years. My kids are emotionally handicapped and the new PARC test and the end of a course on line will be a disaster. They come in 2 or more years below grade level. Algebra 1 for all freshman is not going to cut it. My autistic spectrum kids will run out of the room s reaming and by conduct disorders will say f— this and my career will be over!! Sad way to end a 29 year career. We can retire in Ohio until 67 so I guess I’ll get fired, appeal that get unemployment and get retrained for a new career in my 60′s. Well, to summarize I like core but let me write pre/post tests and throw away PARC

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2 Kim Collazo May 28, 2013 at 8:48 pm

I teach 4th grade in NY. We have been giving the “new” state tests (ELA, Math, and science is still coming). The main thing that bothers me is that the questions are not as deep and though provoking as what we strive for in the curriculum. Two questions were EXACTLY the same on the ELA – what was the setting. Also while scoring (I scored 5th grade as you are not allowed to score your own level) the exemplars were very misleading and inconsistent. As scorers we had to make assumptions if the student “made and inference then supported that inference with 2 specific details (for many questions)” How do we know what the student inferred?! Worded one way a student would earn a 2 or 3 word it another way a 1. I understand and agree there need to be a common “core” in education, but the way it is being rolled out and now assessed is not making it as valuable as it could be. Plus now there will be many MANY gaps in the students’ abilities as we jump into the new standards with both feet next year.

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3 Angela Watson June 1, 2013 at 8:53 am

Thanks for sharing, Kim. I’m surprised you found the assessments to be LESS rigorous than your curriculum. I think that says a lot about the level of rigor you’re achieving on a daily basis in your classroom–wonderful! I agree that the exemplars were not consistent. I would imagine it was very hard to score fairly.

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4 Peter Ford May 28, 2013 at 9:07 pm

As an 8th grade mathematics teacher in California I am concerned that the only Mathematics expert on the CCSS validation committee, Dr. James Milgram, did not sign off on the final document. California’s math Frameworks have received generally favorable marks for their rigor and thoroughness. Even though California has baselined Algebra 1 for 8th grade for over a decade, most students have not been ready academically or in scholastic maturity for Algebra 1 in 8th grade. The 8th grade standards may seem less rigorous, but there’s nothing preventing a teacher from teaching more than what the standards expect.

If a teacher is comfortable with the CONTENT, adjusting your curriculum and pacing should not be that difficult. Yes, you may have to create units & lessons that you haven’t done before (as I must), but as the late, great Earl Weaver used to say, “I win the Pennant in August with the decisions I make in January (off-season).” So my summer will be busy re-structuring my units; that’s why we’re paid the big bucks, isn’t it?

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5 Angela Watson June 1, 2013 at 9:01 am

Peter, I didn’t realize that Dr. Milgram did not sign off. In my work with the math standards, it seems pretty clear that each grade level had a team assigned to it, but there was less effort put into looking at how the standards for each grade level fit together.

There are so many “missing” standards that are just sort of inferred. For example, division with remainders is not taught in third grade, but in fourth grade, students are supposed to solve division word problems that include remainders. In my opinion, there should be a standard in third or fourth in which students explore “leftovers” in division and what the concept of remainders is all about–it’s very important and not to be glossed over in the rush to get to word problems.

Another discrepancy is the fact that the term 2D shapes in used throughout the elementary grades, but the third grade standards call them plane shapes. Why would teachers use 2D exclusively in 1st and 2nd grades, switch to plane shapes in 3rd, and then go back to 2D in later grades? To me, this indicates an oversight on the part of the committee.

The math standards are very good as a whole, but I’d like to see some minor tweaks to address these kinds of issues.

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6 Molly May 28, 2013 at 10:20 pm

While everything teachers have been learning about CCSS and rigor has clearly explained over and over that rigor does not mean just giving harder and harder work. Rigor is about depth. The sample questions we saw this year, demonstrated that the test developers somehow never got this message.
Our district, in PA, has spent 2 years preparing to start using CCSS in the fall of 2013 and now, we have just been told that, wait, our governor would like to hold off. Seems a little late to change your mind. I don’t think there is anything wrong with the standards. The problem is with the assessments, and at least in our state, the coinciding rolling out of a new teacher evaluation system which will tie the scores of these unreasonable tests, to our evaluations.
I loved this line, ” I don’t see how preparing kids to be college-ready at 18 becomes synonymous with having them do college-level work at 10.” My friends, whose 4th grade daughter attends a nearby school district, have been told all year that their daughter is excelling in reading and is reading at a 6th grade level. Now, after the MAP test, the teacher is upset because this girl did not make a years worth of progress in reading (according to this flawed test). Doesn’t any of the teacher’s data from the year count? Even if the test were accurate, why does a 10 year old need to be reading at 7th grade reading level anyway? Just because she’s able to read the words, most of that text is above her maturity level. If a student is already working above grade level, I’m not saying there should be no concern for continued progress, but how about adding some depth, or exploring other areas of academics or even social skills, instead of just climbing up the ladder of Fountas & Pinnell reading levels? This 4th grader never tells me about what books she likes to read, she just tells me what letter she’s on! It breaks my heart.

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7 Molly May 28, 2013 at 10:22 pm

Oops! I ended up with some incomplete sentences in the beginning of my comment. My apologies…wish I could edit it!

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8 Tracee Orman May 28, 2013 at 11:16 pm

Molly – You hit the nail on the head: “Rigor is about depth.” I think there is way too much emphasis placed on fluency and Lexile scores. Just because a student can read the words fluently does not mean they understand any of them. So many reading tests force students to skim the text for the answer rather than take their time and re-read passages, soaking up the language and pondering the words. Timed testing, in general, will always go against everything we believe in for instilling a love for literature. It takes re-reads and more time to delve deeper into a text. Not harder material that they don’t enjoy reading.

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9 Angela Watson June 1, 2013 at 9:04 am

Agree, Molly, you’re right on here. Thanks for sharing that.

I have to say, thought, that I’m glad your district decided to hold off BEFORE implementing, rather wait until mid-way through the year to rethink things. Some of the biggest problems with CCSS in districts come from the fact that the implementation plan is not feasible. The worst situation is when schools teach CCSS but use assessments that aren’t aligned…no one wins.

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10 Jana June 8, 2013 at 12:02 pm

This is exactly what we are seeing at the high school level. Students read very fluently, but have huge issues with comprehension. Summarizing and paraphrasing, vocabulary connotation… it’s all on a basic level with little depth or thought behind. Forget analysis.

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11 Susan Mescall May 29, 2013 at 5:39 am

I, too, do like the freedom that Common Core is allowing me in Literacy. I am able to better meet my students needs. The county has “suggested” unit themes and resources that I sometimes use…no sense in reinventing the wheel. That being said, to expect 5th graders to complete a 75 question science End of Grade test is ridiculous…three hours of no talking, moving, or any other activity until all are done. I had several students take the entire 3 hours. There is not a movie out right now that I would be willing to sit and watch for 3 hours! They took the test on laptops that would randomly reconfigure and they would have to re-enter all their personal data and log back in…luckily at the spot they were at when the computer decided to “play”.
I am dreading the reading..thankfully it is paper and pencil. Another 3 hour test with dry, uninteresting passages of informational text! If I taught using such texts, I would have a student uprising! I am trying to instill a love of reading in my students and the tests will suck that love right out of their heads!

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12 Angela Watson June 1, 2013 at 9:05 am

Yikes, three hour tests?? There’s got to be a better way…

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13 tntchr May 29, 2013 at 9:23 am

What I saw in my district this year was TOO MUCH TESTING! As soon as we finished one, we were on to another. There was no “rhythm” to our weeks because our days were constantly interrupted by testing. We piloted CCSS but as teachers our JOBS were dependent on the state test — of course those measures were completely different then the CCSS-aligned curriculum we had been teaching all year. UGH. I am in favor of the CCSS but our state needs to take away the other tests then — it’s not fair to assess the students on material that we didn’t cover because we were busy with CC. There doesn’t seem to be a measure of teacher-mentoring in the new evaluation system — I have seen 1st year teachers let go two years in a row now. . .I’m sure there is good reason BUT I’m certain they were never given a “warning” or probation or even a chance to “do better”. How can we help our teachers when all of our administrators are busy evaluating and completing paperwork for MORE testing??? We are losing veteran teachers who are valuable because they don’t “have” to stick around for this more, more, more and we’re losing people who maybe could be good in the classroom, given a little guidance, because no one has the time or patience to help them through their first years. There is SO MUCH MORE to teaching then “just teaching”. . .we need our state policy makers to figure that out first.

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14 Angela Watson June 1, 2013 at 9:06 am

Exactly…what you just described is happening all over the country, and it’s producing disastrous results. My hope is that in a another year or two, most districts will be fully implementing CCSS and CCSS-aligned assessments so we can fairly evaluate how well things are working. It’s impossible to tell right now with the mismatch.

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15 Patricia May 29, 2013 at 9:32 am

As a mom, i can’t understand why we are subjecting kids to all of this nonsense. I grew up in brazil, if we had to do a test like this at the end of the year I can say most of my friends would have a lot of problems… Instead we use report cards, if the child is struggling, the grades on quizzes would help the teacher identify what that child need. And by the end of the year you had your report card and you would be promoted to the next grade or not… I’m not an educator but as a parent, that makes more sense to me than expecting kids to do one big test and base so many things on it.
Now with my own kids, I don’t understand the logic. My daughter was a great student, straight A all year, never had any problems. In 4th grade she did not pass the reading STAAR. Her teachers did not see that coming and had no clue on what happened. She moved on to 5th grade but had to do extra classes for reading. None of her teachers could see anything wrong. The reading specialist said she was the best kid in her class. I have her report card for that year, mostly A, a few Bs. And fail on one test. The problem is that she hates those tests, she gets bored and tries to finish fast, she does not worry if she is doing it right. So this is what I have, a excellent student that can’t tolerate a 4 hours test. It’s too much, at least for a 10 yo.

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16 owlba67 May 30, 2013 at 12:17 pm

Hi Angela! Here in California we’re behind in implementing the CCSS. I just went to training yesterday for Math, and we were given pacing guides with what was to be included in this year’s teaching and what wasn’t, based on the CCSS. We just got new curriculum about 5 years ago for math, so we will be jumping all over and not following its sequence. I like the way they organized what we will be teaching, but there are a few concepts that are not in the curriculum that we’re going to have to figure out how to teach ourselves…we do this all the time anyway, so this is not that big of a deal so far. What is worrisome is that my colleagues and I just took a sample CCSS test that had 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th grade questions as part of a pilot program…on laptops that were brought to us just for that specific reason, and then taken away. Now, our computer lab is not really a lab if all the the computers don’t work. We don’t have computers in our classrooms besides our own. We have old Mac laptops in the lab, our wireless network often fails, and that’s just some of the technical issues. The actual test was very difficult and developmentally inappropriate. On top of that, we realized that we have to teach our students how to use the computers. So, we have to commit to going to the “computer lab” weekly to teach computer skills (how to use the mouse pad on the laptops, how to type, etc.) on equipment that is unreliable. We have no budget whatsoever to upgrade our “lab”…What a mess! Our days are so packed as it is, and now we have another thing that we have to get done. CRAZY!!!

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17 Angela Watson June 1, 2013 at 9:11 am

Yep, those technology issues have me very troubled. I don’t think the majority of questions for the elementary grades will require much typing–mostly just clicking, dragging and dropping, etc. By third grade, those basic skills shouldn’t be too troublesome. So personally, I worry less about the kids’ computer skills and more about the computers themselves. Computers in schools only seem to be reliable for about the first year and then things go wonky, and it’s rare that a school doesn’t have internet connectivity issues, especially when a lot of students are online at the same time. These are NOT problems any teacher wants to deal with during a standardized test which is stressful in and of itself.

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18 Rachel June 16, 2013 at 2:49 pm

I find this conversation very interesting. I don’t have very much experience with the CCSS. Our training is not until August, the week before school starts. (when I’m supposed to start implementing them…not a lot of time to prep if you ask me) Over the past couple of months, I’ve been reading articles and such to find out why some people are against CCSS. The problem from what I’ve read, is not the standards themselves. It’s the fact that they are controlled by the federal government. Angela, you mentioned in your post that we should give the standards a few years to see if they work. By then, states won’t be allowed to back out of them. States will not be able to revise the standards or make changes. So, I’m okay with the fact that some states are second guessing. The whole CCSS came in such a whirl-wind, that many didn’t have time to really think everything through. After reading the comments about the issues with the CCSS assessments and the inconsistency with the math standards, it only adds to my concern. I hope discussions like these continue because if we as teachers don’t fight for our students….who will?

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19 Angela Watson June 16, 2013 at 4:01 pm

Rachel, I’m glad you brought this point up, because you’re right: state vs. federal control of education is a major issue here. There are many people who believe that the federal government does not have the right to mandate what is taught in individual states, and naturally, they are opposed to the CCSS. I’m glad you shared your concern about that.

My personal stance is that the national standards only specify the learning objectives–they don’t tell teachers how to teach, and they don’t prevent states from adding to the curriculum (or even taking away from, up to 10% I believe) as they see fit. I can’t imagine any state taking issue with more than 10% of the standards. There’s nothing even remotely controversial in the standards (remember, CCSS is only ELA and math), and they’re developmentally appropriate for the most part. I can’t imagine that kids in, say, Oklahoma, need to be learning different math concepts in third grade than kids in California. Having a national set of ELA and math standards makes sense to me, and personally I think the benefits outweigh the problems. The social studies standards are going to require more leeway, as I see it.

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