Monday, July 09, 2012

Does ANYONE Care What the Standards Actually Say?

Kathleen Porter-Magee:

First, New York includes on its fourth-, sixth-, and eighth-grade assessments a “paired passage.” For this, students have typically had to read two passages that are related in some way, then to answer a series of short-answer and one extended-response question. The released samples still include paired passages, but I think the Department could have used them to better effect. For starters, in both the fourth- and eighth-grade tests, the extended response question that was based on the paired passage is a fairly low-level “compare and contrast” question. The Common Core standards seek to push students to do higher-level analytical writing. New York could provide better examples of the kinds of writing that the new standards ask of students. (In fairness, the sixth-grade extended-response question is much better.)

Let's look at the questions and the relevant standards to try to sort this out.

4th grade extended-response question:

The myth and the article both provide explanations for why evergreen trees keep their leaves in winter. How are the explanations similar and different?

Use specific examples from the myth and the article to support your answer. In your response, be sure to do the following:

  • describe what the myth says about why evergreen trees keep their leaves in winter
  • describe what the article says about why evergreen trees keep their leaves winter compare and contrast the two explanations
  • include details from both the myth and the article to support your answer

Because this is responding to the combination of a myth and a scientific article, this is supposed to align to both:

RL.4.9 - Compare and contrast the treatment of similar themes and topics and patterns of events in stories, myths, and traditional literature from different cultures.

RI.4.9 - Integrate information from two texts on the same topic in order to write or speak about the subject knowledgeably.

This prompt does not align with the literature standard because it compares a myth to an informational text. The standard is clearly looking for a cross-cultural comparison, not a comparison of myth and science. It isn't really aligned with the informational text standard either. They aren't even trying.

6th grade extended-response question:

In both the Demosthenes biography and the Icarus and Daedalus myth the main characters exhibit determination in pursuit of their goals. Did determination help both main characters reach their goals, or did it lead them to tragedy? Write an argument for whether you believe determination helped or hurt the two main characters.

In your response, be sure to do the following:

  • describe how determination affected the outcome in Demosthenes
  • describe how determination affected the outcome in Icarus and Daedalus
  • explain the similarities or differences that exist in the ways determination played into the outcome of both texts
  • use details from both passages in your response

This is supposed to align to:

RL.6.9 - Compare and contrast texts in different forms or genres (e.g., stories and poems; historical novels and fantasy stories) in terms of their approaches to similar themes and topics.

Same damn thing! The standard asks the student to compare two fictional literary texts and the example is a literary and an informational. This is rather important since a biography ought not to "approach a theme or topic" with the same kind of approach as a fictional text at all. This question would literally encourage students to confuse Greek mythology and Greek history.

The 8th grade extended-response question is ridiculous:

In the two autobiographies, the authors describe the challenges they must overcome to learn essential skills. Using specific details from the two passages, compare and contrast the challenges that each author faces and how each addresses those challenges.

In your response, be sure to do the following:

  • describe the challenge presented in “Story of My Life”
  • describe the challenge presented in “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave”
  • explain how the author of each passage addresses the challenge
  • compare and contrast the challenges the authors faced and how they overcame their challenge
  • use details from both passages in your response

The problem is that they seem to have written this on auto-pilot to match the form of the previous questions without checking standard 9 for 8th grade informational texts:

RI.8.9 - Analyze a case in which two or more texts provide conflicting information on the same topic and identify where the texts disagree on matters of fact or interpretation.

Oh crap, that doesn't work for two different autobiographies! I don't want to have to write another prompt... how about if we say we're aligning to:

RI.8.2: Determine a central idea of a text and analyze its development over the course of the text, including its relationship to supporting ideas; provide an objective summary of the text.

Yeah, that'll do. Nobody will care about a little extraneous comparing and contrasting!

When I started this post, what I assumed I'd find is that Porter-Magee's complaint that two of these questions were too "low-level" for Common Core is unjustified by the actual reading standards ostensibly addressed. I think I've shown that is true. If the standards call for comparing and contrasting, that's what should be assessed. The only thing they aren't high-level enough for is Porter-Magee's hand-wavy overall interpretation of the ambitions of the Common Core.

I was genuinely surprised, however, to see just what a butcher job of alignment NYSED managed to come up with. The only thing I can attribute this to is that even the test authors are so freaked out over counting informational vs. literary texts that they don't think they're allowed to include enough literary texts to evaluate the literature standards.

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