"[I]f I had to live my life again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature." --Charles Darwin

Saturday, May 1, 2010

Belling the cat

Last month, draft common core state standards were published for comment by The National Governors' Association. It seems like simple common sense to agree on what a high school diploma in this country means, and that such agreement is best pursued as a consortium of sovereign states, rather than as a federal initiative.

I looked through the 9-12 standards for English Language Arts Literacy and they appear unexceptionable to me. (A summary of general preliminary comment appears here.) They are more simply and directly phrased than our New Jersey standards, appropriately rigorous and geared toward post-secondary education and workplace readiness. Since I was never part of the professional education system (I entered teaching via Alternate Route), I don't really have much to say about the proposed standards. They seem reasonable and I would have no problem designing lesson plans and projects to specifically address the goals.

Goals are relatively easy. Then comes assessments. When I was a kid, one of my favorite Aesop's Fables was "Belling The Cat." In case you don't remember it, here's the Harvard Classics version:

LONG ago, the mice had a general council to consider what measures they could take to outwit their common enemy, the Cat. Some said this, and some said that; but at last a young mouse got up and said he had a proposal to make, which he thought would meet the case. “You will all agree,” said he, “that our chief danger consists in the sly and treacherous manner in which the enemy approaches us. Now, if we could receive some signal of her approach, we could easily escape from her. I venture, therefore, to propose that a small bell be procured, and attached by a ribbon round the neck of the Cat. By this means we should always know when she was about, and could easily retire while she was in the neighbourhood.” 1
This proposal met with general applause, until an old mouse got up and said: “That is all very well, but who is to bell the Cat?” The mice looked at one another and nobody spoke. Then the old mouse said:


So how do we bell this cat? Here is what the proposed standards suggest:
• Employ a robust mix of test questions and performance assessments* necessary to measure the full breadth and depth of the Common Core State Standards. Although decisions about item types should be based on an analysis of how best to measure the standards, new summative assessments will likely need to incorporate a larger proportion of more sophisticated multiple-choice questions, constructed-response (or “fill-in-the-space”) questions, on-demand performance tasks, and—to the extent feasible— classroom-based performance assessments.

• Aggressively pursue technology-based solutions for more efficient delivery and scoring of state assessments and to report test results more rapidly, clearly, and in various formats that are useful both for accountability and for improving classroom instruction.

• Employ “universal design principles,” strategies for developing new assessments in ways that allow the widest possible range of students to participate fully from the outset, along with appropriate accommodations to ensure maximum participation of students with special educational needs.

* Performance assessments are ways to measure students’ knowledge and skills that go beyond asking them to answer multiple-choice or fill-in-the-space questions. Typically, students are asked to complete a hands on task that can take 40 minutes or can be completed over several class periods. For example, students
might be asked to research and write a magazine article or to conduct and explain the results of a scientific experiment.

• Support and involve classroom teachers in efforts to improve assessment at all levels by:

o Providing teachers support materials and tools (curriculum frameworks, syllabi,
banks of curriculum-embedded performance tasks) which help teachers to become “assessment literate”; and

o Offering teachers opportunities to participate in the development and implementation of new state assessments, including the design of constructed-response items and performance tasks for summative assessments.
This sort of assessment reform has been rumored as long as I've been in the education racket (about 9 years now). And as a teacher, I believe "classroom performance-based assessments" would be the best possible ones. But measurements in such matters defy standardization. The solution contains its own contradiction.

And it is terrifically expensive. It requires trained educators, not mere compilers of data, and it requires assessments to be gathered in groups of 25 or fewer in a classroom, rather than thousands in one fell standardized-test swoop. (And I applaud the acceptance of accommodations for special-needs students, which is not substantially embraced by NCLB. There are physical and time accommodations, but no real adjustments to the performance mode.)

So my question is--is anybody serious about this, or is it political theater? Because this type of assessment, if adopted, would represent a radical turn toward quality which our current political landscape cannot support.

No comments:

Post a Comment