LAST week was baby’s first MCAS exam. My third-grade daughter, after months of preparation, sat down in front of a thick booklet to answer reading comprehension questions. She experienced the rituals of test-taking, the exhortations NOT TO TURN THE PAGE UNTIL SHE WAS TOLD. She felt the pressure of performance, passed from public to administration to principal to teacher, all the way down to the students in metal chairs.
Watching her handle that pressure — drilling, for weeks on end — was tough. On the other hand, those drills involved reading texts, understanding them, and answering open-ended questions, which aren’t such terrible skills to practice over and over again.
Such are the positives and negatives of standardized tests. And if we think the pressure’s on kids now, just wait until we dig into the Common Core. High stakes are about to get higher. And it’s the grown-ups who might need to adjust the most.
Massachusetts is currently phasing in the Common Core, the new national curriculum standards that were adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia. In theory, here’s what they’ll do: Place a larger emphasis on the writing process and the construction of arguments, even in classes other than English. Encourage English teachers to work with science and social studies teachers. Force math students to focus on problem-solving instead of concept drills.
The town of Reading is an early adopter of the standards, and a few weeks ago I met with some teachers and administrators there to hear about the transition. Nationwide, the Common Core has gotten flack from some teachers, who complain about one-size-fits-all standards and too-fast implementation. But in Reading, this group had largely good things to say.
Kathy Favazza, a middle-school math teacher who helps train teachers in the new system, talked about spending less time standing at the board and more guiding her students in exploration. She described one lesson plan after the February blizzard: She put up a map of power outages, then asked students what they saw and what they wanted to know. They started comparing outage rates, doing fractions and complex long division, “because they were interested in finding out the answer.”
Other teachers told stories about cross-discipline collaboration. A middle-school science teacher who asked an English teacher for help developing a student writing assignment, an essay about whether the class should dissect real frogs or use diagrams. An elementary school science teacher, doing a unit on sound, who worked with a music teacher to make instruments.
Teachers said they need to adjust to the new emphasis on writing and find more time to work with colleagues. But they suggested that the biggest resistance might come from students and their parents — particularly those who thrived under the old system.
“They’ve learned how to do school,” said Craig Martin, the principal of Coolidge Middle School. But the rules for success, he said, are going to change.
And the real test will come in the form of . . . a test. The Common Core requires a new standardized test called PARCC, which stands for Partnership for Assessment of Readiness in College and Careers (deep breath), and will likely be in place by the 2014-2015 school year. The new test will be performed twice a year, administered largely on computers, and designed, in the higher grades, to measure college preparedness.
Other states that have already used PARCC have seen precipitous drops in scores, compared to their previous tests. That might not happen in Massachusetts, which already has high standards.
Then again, Massachusetts has a college readiness problem. More than three quarters of our students score “proficient” on the 10th-grade MCAS. But when they go to in-state public colleges, 40 percent of them wind up in remedial classes. If these new PARCC tests show they’re flailing, what will happen?
The answer is up to the grown-ups, within the schools and outside of them. Can we view lower scores, not as cause for panic, but reason to adjust? Or will we do what opponents of the Common Core fear: vilify teachers, perform endless drills, cling to test scores as a sole indicator of success?
The tests are coming. They’re going to be harder. The kids, I suspect, will eventually rise to the challenge. Here’s hoping adults can rise to the challenge, too.Joanna Weiss can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @JoannaWeiss.