Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Oppenheimer for 9th Graders

I've started to try to grok the PARCC tests, or at least the practice tests. I'm afraid they are as much of a sixteen dimensional clusterfuck as the Common Core Standards themselves.

I started by looking at the 9th grade Performance Based Assessment (PBA) in ELA/Literacy, because most of my experience is with high school, and one pays a lot of attention to the freshman year in general (or you should!), so I felt like I had relatively good intuition about this one.

OK, so the first sentence you read is a real forehead slapper from the start:

Today you will research the development and one-time use of the atomic bomb.

I trust you see the problem there. I think that should be sufficient to throw the whole damn thing out, if they can't proof-read the first sentence of the practice test.

Anyhow, moving on, the first text in the PBA is Robert Oppenheimer's farewell speech to the Association of Los Alamos Scientists, or at least the first 40% or so (up to "It is clear to me that wars have changed."). I ran the first 1000 words through the scoring doo-hickey on the Lexile website, and it came up with 1270, which would be the top of "college and career ready" according to the official Common Core commentary. Beyond that, you're basically dropping kids directly into an ongoing conversation between atomic scientists in 1945. Oppenheimer's purpose in the speech is to take advantage of his leaving the directorship of the Manhattan Project to speak a little more freely about his opinions, so a lot of it is in the form "Concerning issue X, some people have been saying Y, others Z, I think it is important to consider K..." and then on to the next thing.

There isn't a lot of technical detail, which I suppose might make it seem somewhat accessible, but there just isn't much detail at all. Oppenheimer can't start throwing out details and anecdotes because it's the Manhattan Project. He can't say "I remember well the morning in April 1944 when General Whatever invited Niels Bohr and I over for lunch..." or any of the sort of anecdotes which would usually give a little life and context to a farewell speech.

Nor does he particularly want to linger on exactly why this discussion is even taking place. He doesn't point out, for example, that "The work of the people in this room lead directly to the death of at least 150,000 people."

Also, the first part is mostly throat clearing and setup, and the excerpt ends before it gets to the more interesting parts of the talk.

Even if you assume you want some Oppenheimer in the test, it is just a lousy choice of a text, and the idea that this can be considered a text at the 9th grade level defies common sense. Atomic scientists do not discuss among themselves profound moral and political issues of great personal weight at a 9th grade level. Any definition of textual complexity that claims they do does not pass the laugh test.

One big question though is whether this text is intentionally way above 9th grade complexity because these tests have to measure growth of advanced students. At least that would explain its presence, although then one has to ask about the impact of starting a test with a section way above the grade level expectation. I did a little Googling on the impact of question sequencing, and on the whole it is somewhat inconclusive, but there's pretty good reason to think the common sense expectation that this would be disproportionately hard on a range of disadvantaged students, including those with high test anxiety.

And I haven't even started on the questions yet. That'll have to wait for later posts.

On the whole though, this is what I was afraid of when I first read about the Common Core's emphasis on textual complexity: choosing texts because they are difficult to understand, perhaps ones that are difficult in some specific way.



VD said...

Um, sorry, but what's the typo you see? I'm a teacher and a copy editor and I don't see it.

Tom Hoffman said...

How many times did we use the a-bomb? Hint: go ask Nagasaki.

mattmcc said...

That the opening line contains a major historical inaccuracy is telling. Then again, these tests were farmed out to for-profit firms. Maybe academic accuracy is unimportant in the rush to profits.