When my children were young, I was showing them a signed copy of a book by Ray Bradbury. I told them he was one of my favorite writers. My daughter got a puzzled look on her face as she stared at the autograph in the book. She said emphatically, “I don’t think he’s a very good writer!”
I didn’t think Bradbury was in the kindergarten curriculum of California, so I asked how she knew he wasn’t a good writer. She said indignantly, “I can write better than he can!” She found a piece of paper, grabbed a pencil and proceeded to carefully write her name on the paper. “See! My writing is easy to read and his is like scribbling.”
As I read about people’s reactions to the Common Core Standards and the fact that statewide test scores are leveling or sliding down as we test our students with one style of test while we teach toward another, I see a parallel with that story.
When we evaluate Ray Bradbury as an author, it is his short stories and novels, not his handwriting, that determines the quality and impact of his writing. I look at the new “Smarter Balanced Assessments” and compare them with the tests that states across the country have been using and I see us doing the same thing that my daughter did with Ray Bradbury.
We are telling students we want them to be good writers and evaluating that by seeing if they select the right bubble on an answer sheet. We are hoping to build on their math and science understanding and their ability to do critical thinking, and then testing it with a multiple-choice test. Just as we can’t measure Bradbury’s success by his handwriting, we can’t judge our kids, our teachers and our schools on simplistic and outmoded tests.
The assessments that are aligned with the Common Core Standards move well beyond the tests we have been using, and will use again at the end of this school year. The “Smarter Balanced” assessments include performance tasks that require students to apply their knowledge and skills in response to complex real-world problems. They are designed to measure depth of understanding, writing and research skills and critical thinking.
To demonstrate why that is going to lead to a mismatch in what students are taught and what students are tested on, let me give you a sports analogy.
Imagine that we spend the whole year preparing young athletes to compete in a marathon. At the end of the year when we want to judge how well they learned and how well their coaches taught, we test them by making them run not a marathon but the 50-yard dash. Why? We use the 50-yard dash because it is quicker and easier to score.
Using the No Child Left Behind model, after we gave that assessment, we would then use the 50-yard dash data to decide whether or not students, coaches and schools were successful. Even schools that had most of their students excelling in marathons would go into program improvement if every subgroup in the school didn’t do well on the 50-yard dash. Sound familiar?
Ridiculous? Yes, but many people are still willing to judge our schools with the same kind of mismatched assessments. I believe that the Common Core Standards and the Smarter Balanced Assessments hold the potential of finally getting us to assess students on important skills, concepts and ways of thinking that will truly influence their success when they get out of school.
Life is a marathon, and we’ll never get our young people ready to succeed if we don’t give them the right tools to tackle complex real-world problems using their best critical thinking and putting their math, writing and reading skills into practice. We need to get outdated NCLB assessments out of the lives of our schools so teachers can devote their energies to teaching and accurately assessing those skills and thought processes.
It will take time to train teachers, to align the curriculum and materials with assessments, to work out technology kinks, to build the resiliency needed by the students as they encounter more difficult work and to educate the community on a new way of learning and being assessed. Let’s give our schools the breathing room they need to make this program work.
— Bob Schultz spent 36 years in K-12 education and now serves on the adjunct faculty of Brandman University. He wishes to dedicate this column to Al Koyama, “the special man who always prodded me to enter this contest.”