Friday, December 11, 2015

NY Common Core Task Force Issues Report

That was pretty fast work! The Common Core Task Force, which looked a bit like the old Education Reform Commission with the addition of a handful of people who worked for real in public schools plus a parent and a student, has already issued a report based on public sessions, listening sessions, outreach, and 1,800 comments submitted to the Task Force website, which allowed individuals to comment on specific Common Core State Standards. (I was one of the respondents; assuming that every other respondent was a teacher, which I know is not true, the number of comments amount to about a 0.9% response. Pretty sad, and considering the strong 2014-15 pushback from parents and teachers, surprising.)

The Task Force produced a very nice report with 21 recommendations, which I'll review below. All comments are my opinion, based on 40 years of working with learning goals/standards.

Recommendation 1: Adopt high quality New York education standards with input from local districts, educators, and parents through an open and transparent process. The old NYS standards had such input. They also looked like a patched-together mish-mosh, as indeed they were. Maybe it's my editorial bias, but I liked the CCSS because they were simple and consistent. California has gone through the CCSS and added occasional bits to existing standards, boldfacing their additions but not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. It would be nice if we could do something similar.

Recommendation 2: Modify early grade standards so they are age-appropriate. There have been a lot of complaints about the K-2 standards, despite the fact that NYS doesn't test them. It is certainly true that you get enormous variance in readiness at these grades, so some real flexibility is called for. I don't remember seeing a lot of state standards that enabled that kind of flexibility, but maybe we can do better.

Recommendation 3: Ensure that standards accommodate flexibility that allows educators to meet the needs of unique student populations, including Students with Disabilities and English Language Learners. Yes, absolutely. This isn't so much a problem with the standards as with the application of the standards. Insisting that everyone accomplish everything becomes daunting for teachers and frustrating for students, and yes, cruel. In our eagerness not to track students, we've lost sight of the goal, which has to be to help each individual reach his or her potential.

Recommendation 4: Ensure standards do not lead to the narrowing of curriculum or diminish the love of reading and joy of learning. The focus on reading and math of course led to diminished focus on everything else. The focus on nonfiction (which, I have to tell you, is really what people read in college and career) irked everyone who wanted kids to read for fun. I hope we don't ignore the importance of getting students to read nonfiction—it's a skill that my own college student wishes she had. New standards/frameworks in science and social studies exist, but NYS has been slow to incorporate them because of the singleminded focus on CCSS reading and math. I am not sure whether this recommendation means that NYS standards will be in every subject area as they were in the past; it's just not clear yet.

Recommendation 5: Establish a transparent and open process by which New York standards are periodically reviewed by educators and content area experts. Well, yes. I don't think anyone expects any standards to be set in stone and not subject to review. Old NYS standards were gutted and revised every few years, but people seem to have forgotten that.

Recommendation 6: Ensure educators and local school districts have the flexibility to develop and tailor curriculum to the new standards. When I did my student teaching, we had to write lesson plans based on learning goals. That's what we did. It served me well in the textbook biz, where we are given a state or national standard and told to write a four-page or six-page lesson or chapter or whatever. I was so confused when the state started issuing "modules" for districts; it seemed to be the opposite of what most districts usually want. And there was so much grief about the modules—some of them were good, and some were very bad, because, guess what—they were written by people working very fast to fill a sudden need. The reason for the need still eludes me, but I gather that there just wasn't time between the delivery of the CCSS and the school year to revise existing lesson plans. I still find this odd, because I know that state standards change over time, and I guess I assumed that teachers revised lessons to fit. CCSS was not a completely radical shift; it didn't require any textbook, for example, to throw out all lessons and start from scratch. Books did require tweaking; a lit series might need to up its focus on nonfiction, for example, and composition series needed to break down argument writing better than they had in the past. But none of it was super-dramatic, at least in ELA. I just wonder whether teacher training is at fault here; do teachers not get the training they need to accommodate changes in learning goals from year to year?

Recommendation 7: Release updated and improved sample curriculum resources. Again with the modules. Honestly, if you hate the modules so much, don't use the bloody modules. They were meant to be models, as I understand it, not stone tablets.

Recommendation 8: Launch a digital platform that enables teachers, including pre-service teachers and teacher educators, to share resources with other teachers across the state. Well, these exist all over the place, but having a state-sponsored platform is a great idea.

Recommendation 9: Create ongoing professional development opportunities for teachers, teacher educators, and administrators on the revised State standards. This recommendation does focus on teacher prep, thank goodness, and it also ensures that BOCES will continue to play a critical role going forward.

Recommendation 10: Involve educators, parents, and other education stakeholders in the creation and periodic review of all State standards-aligned exams and other State assessments. This calls for a process similar to that for the Regents exams, with questions designed by teachers and reviewed by content area experts as well as special ed and ELL teachers. I can't comment on the practicality of this. The recommendation also asks the State to work with higher ed to help adopt tests that predict college readiness, to which I say, "Hooray!" The goal would be to eliminate the need for students to take remedial coursework at any NY public college. I'm guessing that this test will have to take place in 11th grade in order for remediation to enable a student to graduate—we're talking right now about a huge number of students, as many as a quarter of graduates in some of our local districts.

Recommendation 11: Gather student feedback on the quality of the new tests. It seems reasonable that students should be allowed to complain if questions confuse them or seem unrelated to their learning.

Recommendation 12: Provide ongoing transparency to parents, educators, and local districts on the quality and content of all tests, including but not limited to publishing the test questions. Publishing a percentage of test questions is always useful. Publishing a whole test means creating tests from scratch annually, which is both exorbitantly expensive and fails to allow for correspondence of items from one year to the next. Better and more timely score reports are a great idea; making them as super-specific as the recommendations suggest may be difficult, but would certainly be useful.

Recommendation 13: Reduce the number of days and shorten the duration for standards-aligned State standardized tests. Yes, it's ridiculous and expensive to spend so much time testing. The revision of NCLB, now signed into law as ESSA, ensures that we're stuck with 3-8 and high school testing, but it doesn't have to be 540 minutes' worth.

Recommendation 14: Provide teachers with the flexibility and support to use authentic formative assessments to measure student learning. Why isn't this happening now? Or is it? There's nothing in CCSS or even in NCLB that ever suggested that teachers not use different types of assessments for their various classroom needs. I am confused about the inclusion of this recommendation.

Recommendation 15: Undertake a formal review to determine whether to transition to untimed tests for existing and new State standardized tests aligned to the standards. This has to do with reducing anxiety. If the goal is simply to find out whether students have learned, surely there's no need for a time limit. However, untimed tests will offer new challenges for districts and teachers alike.

Recommendation 16: Provide flexibility for assessments of Students with Disabilities. Kids who fall between a need for alternative assessments and the ability to fly through regular assessments are at a decided disadvantage. There's some desire to test Students with Disabilities at their instructional age rather than at their chronological age, presumably based mostly on reading levels. This will require a waiver from the feds, though. What's happening now isn't working; let's hope a new plan comes forth that is more kid-friendly than what we have now.

Recommendation 17: Protect and enforce testing accommodations for Students with Disabilities. If kids are eligible for accommodations, they must receive accommodations (extra time, oral delivery of directions, etc.) Seems like a no-brainer, but apparently it has not been enforced statewide.

Recommendation 18: Explore alternative options to assess the most severely disabled students. If students have instructional ages below K, they simply should not have to take these assessments. Coming up with an alternative plan seems completely sane.

Recommendation 19: Prevent students from being mandated into Academic Intervention Services based on a single test. It would help if AIS were seen as an advantage rather than a punishment, but sadly, that's often not the case. This recommendation calls for AIS to be based on various other input in addition to test scores. Certainly you never want a child stuck in AIS instead of receiving instruction in music or art, as happens sometimes. I think AIS should be entirely rethought, and a state panel should look at best practices and encourage them to be instituted statewide.

Recommendation 20: Eliminate double testing for English Language Learners. Right now, new immigrants who don't speak English at home have one year before they are tested in ELA. The feds require such kids to take an English Language Proficency test as well until they demonstrate proficiency in the language. This double-testing does not seem fair, and I agree with the recommendation that one year is not enough leeway.

Recommendation 21: Until the new system is fully phased in, the results from assessments aligned to the current Common Core Standards, as well as the updated standards, shall only be advisory and not be used to evaluate the performace of individual teachers or students. My guess is that we will never actually grade teachers based on standardized tests, because we will never end up keeping one test or testing plan longer than a handful of years. This transition phase is purely transitory; when have we ever kept a system long enough to draw any conclusions from it? That, in a nutshell, is the story of American education: Constant change, such that no one student makes it through preK-12 with a single set of learning goals or a consistent curriculum.

This is a lovely report that manages once again to conflate testing with standards but does address most of the critical complaints from stakeholders. With ESSA's effective elimination of federal oversight of schools, it is timely, too. My questions remain: Why would any nation on Earth want 50 different sets of goals for educating its students? How do we protect students from parochialism and dumbing-down? What can we do to prepare new teachers better? How many pathways to graduation should exist, and how can we afford them? When will we start looking at a model for regional high schools?

I liked CCSS for a lot of reasons: consistency, simplicity, thoughtfulness, connection to long-term goals. From inception to finish, they lasted eight years—a bit less in some states. That's longer than New Math, longer than Whole Language. I guess that makes the Common Core successful in American ed-terms. *sigh*


Diane said...

I'm a little surprised that the English major writes, "The focus on nonfiction (which, I have to tell you, is really what people read in college and career) irked everyone who wanted kids to read for fun." Nonfiction is part of what people read in college, but it certainly shouldn't be all they read. The ability to analyze, understand, and enjoy fiction is vitally important for every child. Besides helping students learn to think analytically, reading fiction has other positive effects on readers, including increasing empathy and improving brain function.

KAZ said...

As you know, CCSS didn't get RID of fiction. It just raised the amount of literary nonfiction suggested to parallel how grownups read for information and to improve the variety of genres. Essays, opinion pieces, memoirs, speeches, digital resources--require different reading skills from stories, drama, poetry. The balance, which shifts slowly from 50-50 at grade 4 to more nonfiction at higher grades, was based on results from the NAEP that showed that American kids really didn't cope well with nonfiction.

Diane said...

I do know that, and I know that learning to read nonfiction is important. But there are some people who believe that American kids don't cope that well with fiction either...