Dr. Sandra Stotsky speaking to the Wakefield School Board July 16, 2014

Dr. Sandra Stotsky, most noted on this blog for her participation in the Common Core State Standards Initiative Validation Committee and her refusal to sign off on the ELA standards, has written an op ed piece for Pioneer Institute highlighting what just took place in the Wakefield New Hampshire School District. What Wakefield did, in a nutshell, is adopt the Massachusetts ELA and Math standards, which have an excellent reputation and student scores to back up that reputation, in place of the state adopted Common Core Standards. They took a stand for higher standards and expectations for their students. How refreshing!

Dr. Stotsky wrote, “The Wakefield school board, school administrators, teachers, and parents all seem to be working together to implement a far more demanding academic curriculum than will be in place in most other New Hampshire communities this coming year, as suggested by our two and one/half hour discussion on July 15, 2014.   Their kids will become better readers and writers even if state-sponsored Common Core-based tests use test items that won’t show it.”

With the passage and Governor’s sign off on Missouri’s HB1490, school districts in Missouri have the choice of what to do with their curriculum in the interim until new state standards can be approved. It should be noted that, even after new state standards are passed, according to state statute districts have the authority to adopt their own standards and create curriculum based on those standards. The state may not dictate curriculum. (Rsmo 160.514 “The state board of education shall develop written curriculum frameworks that may be used by school districts The curriculum frameworks shall provide guidance to school districts but shall not be mandates for local school boards in the adoption or development of written curricula.”) The adoption of a statewide test should not be used either as a lever to force a defacto state curriculum.

Some teachers are in the process of developing new curriculum and districts are hedging their bets on where the new standards will come out by directing these teachers to develop curriculum aligned with Common Core. The excuses given are that so much has been spent on new material aligned to common core that curriculum must follow or that the state will still take the SBAC test next spring which is aligned to CC. These are weak excuses. Teachers can use the material as they see fit.

University of Missouri researchers testified to the House Education Committee this spring that their research showed the average teacher only used 50% of any textbook selected by the district. The better teachers skipped around the book selecting the portions that they felt were most useful. The other teachers who followed the text sequentially often did not cover all the material required. This showed that the books contain a lot of information that is not necessary to teach the content. So even if your district bought books aligned with common core it is not necessary to follow them verbatim or use every part of them when developing your curriculum.

Little Wakefield took a bold position in their adoption of different standards. They know the common core standards have no empirical evidence to support their superiority. They believe in the evidence behind the MA standards and are placing tremendous confidence in their teachers to develop quality curriculum. They are further trusting their teachers to develop meaningful assessments that will demonstrate their students’ knowledge and refusing to be forced by the state to subject their students to a poorly developed test not aligned to their standards or curriculum. The WSD Board of Education has done their research and knows that the CC aligned tests are fraught with problems. As Stotsky said, it is quite possible that the CC aligned tests will not show how much the students have learned in Wakefield. This is not a failing of Wakefield teachers, but rather a failing of the tests.

The Washington Post printed a critique of the New York Regents exams by Carol Burris and John Murphy, both principals in New York. Murphy in particular has received many awards for her work as a principal and an educator. The reason to look at the NYRs if you do not live in New York is because they share a test developer with common core and therefore are harbingers of things to come from other CC aligned assessments. The NYRs are written and administered for the New York Department of Education by Pearson. Pearson was at the development table for the CC standards, has been writing curriculum for CC math and ELA and is offering common core assessments to states not in PARCC or SBAC. Word has it that the testing companies will be sharing test items, so no matter whether your state is using PARCC, SBAC, Pearson or ACT, you will be seeing similar questions to what is on the NYR exam.

Remember that Common Core seeks to have students answer real world problems and demonstrate a deeper understanding of content. The word they use ad nauseum is rigorous. This manifests itself as a question that includes, “Describe how your equation models the situation.”  The “situation” here referred to dimensions of a garden. This requires not only a mastery of the concept of area, but also the ability to translate “situation.” Even scenario might have been a better word. It’s almost as if the writer lacked the skill to know that they were looking for dimension and had to substitute another more common but less applicable word, situation. Another example given was this.

In the past, a question would have been phrased:  “Given the roots -6 and 5, which of the following would be the correct equation?” Students are then given four choices.

Here is the Common Core phrasing: “Keith determines the zeros of the function f(x) to be -6 and 5. What could be Keith’s function?”

Burris and Murphy said, “This is but one example of a question that was made unnecessarily complicated and wordy in order to give the illusion of a ‘real world’ problem that requires deep thinking.”

A middle school math teacher in MO reported that she took SBAC math sample test and found numerous problems. She noted, as Burris and Murphy did, that with few questions, each question becomes vitally important. As a result, one would think that the test developers would be certain that the questions were clear and the answers accurate. Numerous teachers have shown this not to be the case.

A computer adaptive test, as SBAC is supposed to be, will give a child an easier question if they get the first one wrong. That means that any error on the part of the test developers can have a huge impact in assessing the student. This teacher cited one example that was meant to assess facility with fractions. The problem said,

“Darcy likes to eat peanut butter and raisins on apple slices.  On each apple slice she puts 1/16 cup of peanut butter and 8 raisins.  Darcy has 2/5 cup of peanut butter and 8 raisins.  She eats a whole number of apple slices until the peanut butter is all gone.  What fraction of the 80 raisins did she eat ?  Enter the fraction in the response box.”

Solution:  2/5 cup peanut butter divided by 1/16 cup of peanut butter = 32/5 cup of peanut butter.  This is 6 and 2/5 or 6.4 apple slices.  The normal procedural rounding rule would say that you round down — but here, you have an actual context.  And kids should be problem solvers and should read the problems right?

So, you round up. Why ?  Because the problem says “until the peanut butter is all gone”.  You only have 40% of the normal amount of peanut butter on the 7th apple slice, but still — you have to use it up.  So, 7 apple slices.  Then, you could say, “Well, only use 40% of the raisins too, so use 6.4 x 8 raisins = 51.2 raisins, (not even a whole number?!)   Although, you could cut raisins into 5 equal pieces, or cut 1/5 off and get it done that way. Then the answer would be 51.2/80 or some other version of that number.

Another choice would be to use all 8 raisins on the last apple slice, even though that 7th slice will be short on peanut butter. Again you would round up to 7 and say Darcy ate 7 slices x 8 raisins = 56, = 56/80 or 7/10 of the raisins.

If a student follows the directions of the prompt, they could NOT round down to 6 slices in order to calculate 48 raisins/80 = 3/5, because that would mean that all the peanut butter had not been used.   However, SBAC shows this latter answer as correct. It should be noted that they did also show 7/10 as a possible answer.

In scoring this test, your best students will get this one “wrong” and will then be marked “not ready for the next level”, given easier problems and labelled accordingly.

What is most concerning in her report is that she contacted SBAC and brought this problem to their attention. Their response? “Perhaps after the field test is scored, we will decide that OTHER answers might be correct also…maybe.” They don’t seem highly motivated to be as rigorous in their effort to be accurate as they expect students to be. It sounds like they will decide the answer by democratic majority rule. This ignores the fact that math is a precise subject. They seem unconcerned that truly gifted math students who could figure out the 7/10 or 51.2/80 answer would be rated as having a poor grasp of fractions or that their teachers could be rated as poor teachers for having stressed close reading of the text and accuracy. As this teacher pointed out, this is a question from their sample test, where one would assume they put their best work. What might the other questions in the item bank look like? Yikes

So to those teachers redesigning their curriculum and questioning whether they should worry about making sure their work aligns with the common core tests, the question you should be answering is “Why align to a mediocre product put out by people who clearly don’t seem to care about its quality or impact? What would be the benefit to your students to learn the right answer that is wrong in the real world?”

Stotsky concluded that the NH courts might have to work out whether the state can force a district to take their exam, given that the district has adopted demonstrably better standards.  Local control is what is at stake and at least in Missouri statute there is protection of local control. What worked in NH was parents, teachers and administrators all working together to do what they think is best for their children. The blueprint for action is there. Will your district wake up as well?

 

Anne Gassel

Anne has been writing on MEW since 2012 and has been a citizen lobbyist on Common Core since 2013. Some day she would like to see a national Hippocratic oath for educators “I will remember that there is an art to teaching as well as science, and that warmth, sympathy and understanding are sometimes more important than policy or what the data say. My first priority is to do no harm to the children entrusted to my temporary care.”

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