Thursday, June 21, 2012

What is Informational Text Again?

So the New York State Common Core Sample Questions. I'm not going to nitpick this to death, in part because I don't have any detailed knowledge of what their current tests look like (or anyone's current tests, tbh). I spent the most time looking at the 8th grade samples because that's closest to my background as a high school teacher.

I found one "informational text" to be puzzling: "California Folk Music Project Collection of Traditional Music in California - Instructions to Workers."

Let's first pause and consider that according to NYSED, this document was originally written for "university researchers" in the 1930's. Kind of puts "college and career readiness," and, for that matter, the supposed decline in text complexity over the years, in perspective doesn't it? I don't have a strong opinion about the complexity of the text itself, but I am highly dubious of the underlying premises driving the focus on textual complexity. Is this not by definition a college level text on an 8th grade reading assessment? If actual texts written for actual college students or graduates are not, in fact, at "college-level," (and never were) why is the concept important?

Now, I'm actually in favor of having explicit standards for reading and implementing instructions for procedures. This example is supposed to assess reading of "informational text." However, the "range of reading" standard for informational texts only refers to "literary non-fiction," which is further defined as:

Includes the subgenres of exposition, argument, and functional text in the form of personal essays, speeches, opinion pieces, essays about art or literature, biographies, memoirs, journalism, and historical, scientific, technical, or economic accounts (including digital sources) written for a broad audience.

This text is outside of that large range. What this is, of course, is a "history and social studies" text. It is itself a primary source historical document important to the development of the social science of ethnomusicology. The Common Core standards are, as far as I know, unique in the world in actually including "Literacy in History/Social Studies" standards, but it is apparent that nobody knows what they are for or how to use them.

In fact, this standard fits perfectly but is not applied:

3. Identify key steps in a text’s description of a process related to history/social studies.

A "description of a process related to history/social studies" is exactly what this text is.

So, here's the first question:

This text was written to instruct:
A. migrant workers
B. folk musicians
C. university researchers
D. elementary students

This is never explicitly stated in the text. It is pretty clear what the best guess is. On the other hand, while it diminishes my first point above, I should point out that this answer does not seem to be not entirely correct given some outside context. This was really a WPA project sponsored by the university:

Cowell had an uncanny knack for unearthing WPA staff who could assist her in her project. One of her most valuable fieldworkers was a Mr. Devere, who had had a dairy route in Contra Costa County and who lead her to numerous fine contacts in that area. On her staff were also Portuguese and Spanish speakers familiar with their own musical traditions and an Armenian ethnomusicologist.

Perhaps Mr. Devere was also a "university researcher" as well as milk man.

Regardless, there is no reason to be having kids guess the audience for a decontextualized set of instructions. That is, as we say, "inauthentic." It is not a real problem.

On the other hand, it would be easy to write a good question with the history and social studies version of the same standard:

6. Identify aspects of a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose (e.g., loaded language, inclusion or avoidance of particular facts).

You'd probably end up with a question that would not be out of place in, say MUSC 1900 at Brown, but nobody will be able to say your 8th grader isn't college ready!

OK... so I think I said I wasn't going to get into the nit picking, so I'll stop.

My point here is not that these issues are simple carelessness on the part of NYSED, they are the result of the half-baked conceptual framework of the standards themselves, compounded by Common Core advocates pursuing their own agendas instead of trying to clarify the standards as written.

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