Something that is often heard from Common Core Opponents is that the standards themselves lack content. It’s something you can say and it sounds pretty smart, but can you define what it means if someone asks? Hopefully this will help you to better explain what it means when we say there is no content.
Parent Led Reform Oregon has been having informational meetings hosted by a couple of PhDs, Don Crawford and Chana Cox, who are very acquainted with standards, teaching, administration and pedagogy. During their presentations, I learned a great example of the “no content” claim.
For example, take the English Language Arts standards for Kindergarten. A very clear and consistent standard with strong content would suggest that by the end of Kindergarten, a child should be able to read approximately 40 words per minute with 95% accuracy. They should also be able to encode and decode a word when reading, using phonics and making the sounds that when put together make a word. Of course, there is even an argument regarding how to learn to read; either by phonics as described in this paragraph, or something called “whole word” reading, where children basically memorize the way a word looks and don’t learn how to decode a word. We can talk more about that in a different article, but for now, Common Core is relying on the “whole word” method.
Here are the very ambiguous and open ended standards put forth by the Common Core.
4. Read with sufficient accuracy and fluency to support comprehension.
a. Read grade-level text with purpose and understanding.
b. Read grade-level prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings.
c. Use context to confirm or self-correct word recognition and understanding, rereading as necessary.
Well, that sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? But where are the absolutes?
Now it’s up to the teacher to decide what “sufficient accuracy” is. For teachers who have been teaching for years, it will be easy because they will know what fluency looks like and approximately how many words per minute are acceptable. However, this won’t matter because we have assessments that are not measuring the correct attributes, and will arbitrarily decide whether a kid passes or fails and whether or not a teacher is doing his or her job. So let’s break down the three guidelines in the standards (listed above):
“Read grade level text with purpose and understanding.” Who decides grade level? What is a grade level text? Again, these might be something a seasoned teacher will know, but what about the teachers who are coming out of the teaching colleges who have never used real standards? And then how do you know for sure that a child has “read with purpose”? Can you say, “ambiguous?”
“Use context to confirm or self-correct word recognition and understanding, rereading as necessary.” A child will read a sentence, and instead of decoding an unfamiliar word with phonics, he or she will use the word that looks like what it might be. After reading the entire sentence, they will realize it makes no sense and go back and re-read.
“Read grade-level prose and poetry orally with accuracy, appropriate rate, and expression on successive readings.” Reading the poem correctly doesn’t mean the child understands where the expression should go. Of course, that could be the case, but it might also be that the child has heard it read enough times that they can copy it verbatim.
Now let us move on to the nonsensical question on the new Smarter Balanced Assessments for 3rd grade. This was the example used in the presentation by Dr. Don Crawford and Joseph Cox for our PLR-Oregon informational meeting.
The Old Lion and the Fox
An old Lion had teeth and claws that were worn. So it was not so easy for him to get food as in his younger days. He pretended that he was sick. He took care to let all his neighbors know about it. He then lay down in his cave to wait for visitors. And when they came to offer him their sympathy, he ate them up one by one. The Fox came too, but he was very cautious about it. He stood at a safe distance from the cave. He asked politely about the Lion’s health. The Lion replied that he was very ill indeed. He asked the Fox to step in for a moment. But Master Fox very wisely stayed outside, and thanked the Lion very kindly for the invitation. “I should be glad to do as you ask,” he added. “But I have noticed that there are many footprints leading in. There are no footprints coming out of your cave. Tell me how your visitors find their way out again.”
Which sentence from the story tells Fox that Lion wants to hurt him?
An old lion had teeth and claws that were worn.
He then lay down in his cave to wait for visitors.
But Master Fox very wisely stayed outside, and thanked the Lion very kindly for the invitation.
There are no footprints coming out of your cave.
As an adult, I can see how confusing this must be for a child. However, Dr. Crawford put it very succinctly in his follow up questions for this problem:
If a child gets this item wrong, is it because:
He or she doesn’t know how to read?
He or she is guessing at the words?
He or she doesn’t understand the confusing wording of the question?
(It should read: “Which sentence from the story names the detail that made Fox think that Lion has eaten his previous visitors?”)
He or she just doesn’t “get” the riddle?
He or she doesn’t know how to reason?
These tests are useless because they will not tell the teacher why the child got it wrong. The teacher won’t know how to fix the problem or what to focus on to help the child get it right the next time. It is very possible that the child just will not understand the riddle. Many adults do not understand riddles!
To top this disaster off, I have only highlighted one of the standards. There are actually 35 standards for a Kindergartner–35 ambiguous, open-ended, vague, and unclear standards.
I will continue to highlight the “no content” claim about the standards in the future. And we haven’t even touched math yet.
Ultimately, all of this begs the question: Why are these standards so empty, and to what purpose do they serve?