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For want of a sledgehammer…

According to ESSA, all districts and schools that receive public funds must administer a math and ELA test to at least 95% of their students in grades three through eight, and in High School, once a year.

There is no opinion in that statement. No claim. Nothing to refute or disprove. It is what it is.
There are basically three ways the system can respond to this fact. At the upper level, state ed leaders can:
  1. design and administer tests that look like current ones
  2. design and administer tests that look different
  3. ignore it

Door #3 isn’t really an option as Massachusetts’ attempt at two tests has shown the feds aren’t messing around. Gambling with the dollars that most likely support students in low-resource schools and districts isn’t something states should be doing. (I’m looking at state’s responses here – what an individual parent of a child in public ed can do is a different matter.)

 New Hampshire not only went through Door #2, they kicked it off its hinges. ESSA allows for more states to apply for that path, so here’s hoping lots of states have the courage to do it. This path though, isn’t easy. It requires an incredible amount of work to shift from machine scored, multiple choice tests to capstone projects or portfolios. Time and money. Yet, these kinds of assessments are a worthy goal. They embed diagnostic, interim, and summative assessments into the curriculum and turn tests from something done to students to learning experiences and tasks done with and for them. This ideally is where I’d hope we head as a country. 
So that leaves Door #1 – tests that look like what we have now (25 Multiple Choice questions based off a passage or math problems plus a few extended writing or problem-solving tasks). The challenge is with this approach is, as the cliche says, “what gets measured, gets done.” If there’s poetry on the test, so goes the thinking, teachers will be sure to include poetry in their curriculum. This strikes me as a Faustian bargain. There’s no denying that the content of state tests dictates what happens in the classroom – we’ve known that for years. That said, there is space to push back. Schools and districts can and tdo. The larger issue here is if state tests should treated like the tail that wags the dog (driving curriculum) or a flea on its back (a minor annoyance).
What if, perhaps, there was a door 1.5? One solution I’ve been mulling (that I didn’t explain very well on Twitter and am resisting the urge to delete all of the Tweets where I tried) is shifting the nature of what students read on the ELA tests.

So basically, there are two types of texts students can engage with during the state ELA tests – informational or literature. Currently, NCLB/ESSA state tests use a combination of these types which means students are answering multiple choice questions about poetry. Which… ew. I get why it happens. I get why they’re doing it but it remains one of the oddest things to ever emerge from the public education system. When writing state assessments, states have to narrow down the entire pool of standards to what can be captured by a multiple choice item given to all students at the same time. States already leapfrog the Speaking and Listening standards and pick the most meaningful RI or RL standards to focus on.

What if the tests instead left literature alone – recognizing there is rarely one right answer when it comes to interpreting narrative fiction – and only used informational texts? The content could alternate between Science and Social Studies texts. For example, in grade 3, 5, and 7 students would read passages and answer questions about scientific experiments, plants, space, or technology. In grades 4, 6, and 8 they would read questions and passages about American history, events, and people.

Pros:

  • Science and Social Studies would get more attention as background content knowledge will make the passages easier to negotiate (if we assume that the presence of something on the tests ensures teachers teach it)
  • Poetry and literature can return to their rightful place as a deeply personal experience without one forced right answer as determined by one team of adults
  • Test designers can make explicit connections to states’ SS and Science standards, making the tests primarily an ELA/Reading test, but aligned to the other content that students experience

Con:

  • It runs the risk of chasing poetry and literature right out of the classroom – if they’re not going to be on the test, will ELA teachers include them? (I say yes but your mileage may vary)
  • Literature is a key part of English Language Arts curriculum – removing those passages takes it from an ELA test assessing 4 of the 6 CCLS areas to 3 of the 6 (Language, Writing, Reading Informational Texts). The loss of literature passages may cause content and construct validity issues.

Right now, I’m kind of love with this idea. Keep in mind, though, that I’m MORE in love with the idea of portfolio, capstone, and performance-based assessments as the annual measure. If told door #2 isn’t a viable option, I’d love to find the nearest sledgehammer and make a space between door #1 and #2.

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