In my recent series of blog postings on the common core standards, I expressed concern about what would happen if and when states adopted more stringent and meaningful assessments tied to the new standards.
Well, Florida just offered us a glimpse of what could happen.
From yesterday’s Wall Street Journal:
On Monday, the Florida Department of Education released preliminary scores on the writing test that showed a drastic falloff in student performance, with only 27% of fourth-graders receiving a passing score of 4, on a 6-point scale, compared with 81% last year.
The drop prompted the State Board of Education to call an emergency meeting on Tuesday. At that session, board members decided to lower the passing score to 3, boosting the percentage of those who passed back up to 81%. That threshold is significant, since it is used to calculate the grades that the education department awards to schools in Florida, from A to F.
The article goes on to quote a parent and standardized testing critic:
“It calls into question the veracity of the entire enterprise,” said Kathleen Oropeza, a mother of two students in Orlando and the founder of FundEducationNow.org, an advocacy group that has criticized the state’s testing regime. “We all know our children didn’t become good writers, then bad writers, then good writers within 72 hours.”
Sounds reasonable, right? But the next paragraph in the article suggests WHY the test scores dropped so dramatically when the state revised its writing test.
The writing test, for instance, now places more emphasis on spelling, grammar and punctuation. In one example of a writing question, students were prompted to tell a story with a specific instruction: Suppose someone had a chance to ride a camel and to write a story about what happens on this camel ride. What’s new in 2012 is the way the writing test was scored, with added emphasis on correct use of standard English conventions and to the quality of details.
Ouch. I’ve been working with high school writers for almost a decade – mostly with students in AP classes and therefore mostly with students in the upper quartile at a Utah Catholic high school school where most of the graduates go on to high school.
So I can assure you that even many our best students, as late as their sophomore year in high school, make a LOT of errors in standard English conventions and spelling. They also struggle, mightily, to support their arguments with an adequate level of detail (and, I would add analysis).
Sometimes well-intentioned writing instruction exacerbates the problem. “Free writing”, designed to overcome writer’s block, can send the message that as long as the ink covers the paper, writing errors don’t really count.
We teachers can inadvertently reinforce bad writing, too, by failing to wield our red pens vigorously. I have great sympathy with teachers – especially teachers outside Language Arts – who recoil from trying to note every grammar, spelling and syntax error, especially when they’re saddled with large classes. But here again, we send students an unmistakable signal that they don’t need to write carefully, and accurately.
At the risk of sounding very, very repetitive, let me say again: If we are going to adopt new standards, we need to communicate those standards effectively to teachers, students, and parents . . . and, especially if the standards are higher, we need to brace ourselves for the scores that follow.
I don’t think the solution is flinching, or lowering the bar.