By next school year, Minnesota's English/Language Arts classes must adopt the Minnesota variation of the Common Core Standards. Here's a sampling of the standards aimed at ninth and tenth graders:
“Analyze a particular point of view or cultural experience reflected in a work of literature from outside the United States, drawing on a wide reading of world literature.”
“Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, assessing whether the reasoning is valid and the evidence is relevant and sufficient; identify false statements and fallacious reasoning.”
“Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects to answer a question (including a self-generated question) or solve a problem; narrow or broaden the inquiry when appropriate; synthesize multiple sources on the subject, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.”
These are worthy skills, and I dare say one or two might still challenge many successful adults. A student who meets these standards will be well-read, inquisitive, and critical in her thinking. He or she will move to eleventh and twelfth grade prepared for success, and will then be positioned to do well in college. A teacher who can work with all students and their families to develop these abilities should be lauded for achieving this ambitious goal.
A teacher who does those things, however, won't be recognized for it through test scores. We currently test ninth graders in writing and tenth graders in “reading comprehension,” a limited subset of skills related to literature and informational texts. The ninth grade writing test is, to be frank, a complete joke. Any student who can string together a marginally comprehensible beginning, middle, and end in response to a question about personal experience or opinion will pass the state writing test. The reading test is more difficult, but it's still a far cry from assessing the standards above.
It's true that we'll likely redesign our tests in response to the new standards – there are two different groups currently working on a consistent set of tests that can be used by all states that have adopted the Common Core – but those tests will still struggle to assess skills like the ones above. This is dangerous in a time when test scores continue to gain dominance as a measure of educator “success.”
The vast majority of standardized test questions go after the low-hanging fruit of academic standards, questions about knowledge and comprehension, but not about analysis, evaluation, or creation. The simple reason for this is logistical; we don't have a good way to assess every high school sophomores' sustained research project at the same time.
The risk here is that the tested knowledge and skills become the focus of education, when the real effort should be to cultivate higher order thinking. We have already seen curricula narrowed as a result of testing, and we have seen schools go to great lengths to get students enthusiastic about the fundamentally artificial achievement of doing well on the state test.
We have let our measurement become a goal it wasn't designed to be, and our standards have dropped as a result. I hear people argue that too many of our kids can't reach the low standards already being tested, and this is true. Part of the reason it's true, I'd suggest, is that many students – particularly those in low income environments – recognize the artificiality of the state tests. They see teachers trying to come up with reasons for going over particular skills, but the universally understood answer to, “Why are we doing this?” is, “Because it's on the test in the spring.” This does not motivate students.
The greatest effort I ever saw from my students was when I assigned tasks explicitly designed to get them ready for college. They weren't always successful, but they tried a lot harder and made a lot more progress than when we did work that was clearly aimed at test questions.
To continue to hold up test scores as the definition of success is to aim too low. It puts pressure on schools and teachers to lower their standards and fosters anxiety around a goal that nearly everybody, in their hearts, knows to be manufactured and inadequate. It's time to restore our tests to their original purpose: providing information about the overall outcomes of our educational system so that we can target support to the right places. Tests aren't meant to be the core of a carrot-and-stick system, and when we make them serve that purpose, the quality of education suffers.