Sunday, August 11, 2013

So Much Reading, So Little Time

Every summer, I try to set myself a reading goal. A few years ago, I immersed myself in the novels of Dickens, and it was one of the best summer's worth of reading I've ever spent. This year, I decided to focus on satire, and as a result have spent many happy hours reading Heller, Vonnegut, Roth, and if I can get to it, Cervantes. As an English major/teacher, I have, of course, read all these authors before, but I try to set some time aside in the summer for in depth reading because only then do I have the leisure to savor the work--the artistry--that make these authors great.

Ostensibly, that is what the Common Core is designed to do--to get students to examine a text deeply, to savor the word choices, the imagery, the techniques authors use to evoke emotion from readers and to persuade them to a point of view. That is the reading portion of the Core. On the writing side, the hope is that students will emulate some of the techniques they have read to produce coherent, well designed arguments about the reading.

Accordingly, one would think that any assessment of students aligned to the Common Core would focus on these things, as well. It makes sense that a CC test would afford students time to reflect on what they have read and to construct cogent arguments based on thorough analysis.

So that, of course, is the exact opposite of how students are actually assessed.

Rather than giving kids the time they need to savor and digest text, as they are instructed to do all year, the NYS Common Core tests crams copious amounts of complex text deeply down their throats and asks them respond in a rapid fire fashion.

The 8th grade test is the one I administered, so I'll show what I mean using that. The test takes three days, but the most egregious part is day two. On that day, students were asked to read three passages and answer 21 multiple choice questions. Following that, they were asked to do a second booklet that contained two different passages and required them to write three complete paragraphs and a full length essay.

The total time allotted for this amount of work? 90 minutes. So much for deep reading.

I taught some very bright kids this year, and my biggest challenge was not to get them to think deeply, but to get them to write quickly. Smart kids like to be thorough and original in their writing, and when I gave them a practice test of similar length prior to the real thing, I immediately noticed that not one of them finished it. Not one. Using that as my "data" I set about teaching them how to write quickly. As a result, on Day 2 of the actual test, 31 of 32 students finished the exam. In some other classes, virtually no one finished. So did I do my students a favor? I have no idea. I'm sure they passed, but I'm not sure I taught them much in April other than how to game the test.

In the final analysis, higher level students had to jettison all their best writing skills in order to finish the test on time. Struggling readers simply had no chance.

The irony is that teachers are being evaluated on how well we teach kids to think, but when test time comes, students (and now by extension, teachers themselves) are being evaluated on how quickly they can answer ridiculously long assessments.

Speaking of my own summer reading once more, I must mention that in my study of satire, I discovered a gem. It's the EngageNY Guide to the 8th Grade CC ELA test, and it contains this nugget:
The 2013 Grade 8 Common Core English Language Arts Test is designed so that most students will complete Day 1 and 2 testing in about 70 minutes and Day 3 testing in about 50 minutes. While it is likely that most students will complete testing within these times, students will be permitted 90 minutes to complete the test each day. This design provides ample time for students who work at different paces.

Let's see Cervantes top that.