Travis Durfee is a teacher at Watkins Glen Middle School in Watkins Glen, New York who is administering Common Core-aligned standardized tests to students that were designed by Pearson, the education company. In the following piece, which he calls “Driving Lessons,” he looks from within the schoolhouse gates at the disconnect between the mandated exams and the Common Core State Standards that the tests are supposed to be designed to evaluate. He describes his piece this way: “The essay contrasts my father’s driving lessons with what drives my lessons in the classroom today–the mad dash toward accountability under a new educational paradigm where the Common Core trumps common sense.”
By Travis Durfee
My old man taught me to drive on a 1978 Scottsdale pick-up, a three-speed stick shift. Several lessons on my dead-end street culminated in my first real test—driving home after a bitter winter day loading firewood from the fields across town. In fits and starts, I learned to drive.
The test truly challenged my nascent skills and abilities when I rolled the truck to a stop as the only light in my town turned from yellow to red. Stopping was easy. Proceeding posed the real struggle. I stalled the truck, repeatedly, through three cycles of the light as the line of cars and the chorus of horns grew behind us. The old man sat in the passenger seat—stewing, most likely, as frustration and disbelief tried his patience and best intentions. But he remained in the passenger seat. Driving was my responsibility that day and, eventually, we made it home.
Memories of my father’s driving lessons surfaced after speaking with my 7th grade students, who just completed their first round of state tests for the year. April 3rd was the last of three days of English Language Arts testing mandated by New York state. The tests are designed to evaluate student progress toward the more rigorous and much-maligned Common Core Learning Standards. The test results are supposed to inform a good deal about education in my district in the future. The results determine which students need additional literacy instruction and how best to deliver it, through “data-driven instruction” in the classroom. The students’ test results also determine my effectiveness as an educator, as well as my building and district leaders’ effectiveness, by extension. And yet the state tests themselves fail a simple test of public policy.
Does your test evaluate that which you hope to gauge? When you pose this question of the state tests—do the evaluations reflect what we want students doing and learning at school?—the answer is simple. No. The tests purported to evaluate the new standard of education in New York do no such thing.
Consider the math of the English test. The test is broken into three 90-minute testing periods over three days and claims to evaluate literacy, namely reading and writing skills. On the first day students are confronted with six reading passages and 42 multiple-choice questions in a 90-minute block. A ballpark estimation gives students roughly 15 minutes to navigate each passage and set of questions. Consider a sample question, but first start a timer:
Revisit lines 42-45 from the passage.
The New York State Common Core Test in English Language Arts 2014 will assess more rigorous educational standards designed to bolster our national economic prosperity and cultural heritage.
Which detail from the passage does the author use to best support the central idea of the sentence above:
A “More challenging learning standards will force instructional innovation to surface in the classroom.”
B “Suggested teaching protocols, such as the Reading Closely reading strategy, will ensure that even struggling and reluctant readers will comprehend, as well as critique, authentic texts.”
C “Developing student writing skills, such as the ability to plan, edit, revise and publish evidence-based arguments, will strengthen the foundation of writing as a central mode of inquiry”
D “Fully-aligned evaluation systems for teachers, teaching-assistants, administrators and superintendents will ensure accountability through the shift to a powerful new educational paradigm.”
Did you read all 136 words in 60 seconds? If so, great! Not to diminish your accomplishment, but remember the context: such a sample question might appear on a test designed for 12- and 13-year-old middle school students, not informed adults reading about education in their free time.
And before the critical thinkers among you begin casting aspersions, reckon with the following: the example above was not designed to intentionally flummox readers less savvy than yourself. In fact, the example above is shorter than the following question, an actual sample question from the 2013 ELA test:
Read the last sentence of the passage.
He hoped that the meteorite would stay at the bottom of the Thinking Pond forever, in a place where the earth, the water, and a piece of the sky all touched each other.
Which sentence from the passage best matches this characterization of David?
A “David couldn’t understand why he seemed to be the only one who saw how amazing it was for a squirrel to run down a tree head first, or how unique each day’s sky full of clouds was.” (lines 6 through 8)
B “His mom said he was more sensitive and thoughtful than other kids his age, but David just felt lonely and left out most of the time.” (lines 8 and 9)
C “About a quarter of a mile from the pond, David caught sight of the huge, gnarled oak tree he’d nicknamed the Old Giant for its rough, craggy bark and tall, thick trunk.” (lines 10 through 14)
D “By now David could usually see the shine of sunlight on the gently rippling water, but today something was different.” (lines 35 and 36)
That sample question clocks in at 186 words. And, again, students have roughly 60 seconds to accurately read, process, re-read and respond. If you think I’m low-balling the time spent on each question, spend 90 seconds per question. Now you’re left with fewer than five minutes to read a 600- to 800-word passage on plastic bags, asteroids, or coyotes (the subjects of this year’s passages). Forget the dry texts on the tests. Even the math of the English test is maddening.
Word count and timing aside, a test that evaluates speed-reading and comprehension simply does not jibe with the bevy of skills that the Common Core expects educators to teach.
Consider the Reading Closely reading strategy. It’s all about time, and using more of it. Students are encouraged to marinate in a text such that the meaning of a passage becomes infused in the very fiber and sinew of the student’s understanding. It’s a good strategy. I love it and use it often when I read for understanding.
The strategy, summarized, requires the following: 1) Read the text to get the flow, or feel of the piece; 2) Re-read to identify important or unfamiliar words; 3) summarize, or write the gist of portions of the text in the margins; 4) record the text’s key details and important information. These are the habits good readers use to understand complex information and, yet, the examination designed to evaluate whether students have developed these habits makes no time for close reading. Ninety minutes, six passages, 42 multiple-choice questions. Go!
This is not how I teach, nor how I want my children educated. And yet, another testing session has concluded to evaluate another year of teaching and learning (yes, the beginning of April is when the state assesses students’ ELA skills to gauge the success of the school year that concludes at the end of June). That Albany is mulling a delay in the implementation of Common Core state tests is red meat for Common Core opponents in an election year, a mostly meaningless gesture in an era when the war drums of accountability and reform continue to drive the arms race of standardized testing. It is understandable, if wholly disheartening, to hear the deflated apathy that rationalizes these policies on the ground.
The system is what it is.
That ship has sailed.
The train has left the station.
I’m not advocating that we pull the brakes, jam the gears and watch wreckage pile. But just because the train has left the station doesn’t mean we have to ride in the cattle car. Surely there is space in the engine room for creative administrators, school boards and faculty associations to craft meaningful systems for evaluating good teaching and student learning.
I think back to my time in the GMC with my old man. He trained me to drive stick shift on a rusty, three-speed pick-up truck. After sketchy marks on my first exam I was not handed the keys to a Formula 1 car for time trials. Yet, that is how we test our students, and by extension our teachers and our schools. We train students to read and write, carefully and with purpose, but then we throw them into a sprint we’ve called the Race to the Top. Is it any wonder that they crash and burn, or pull up lame?
I was certainly not surprised when many of my students reported feeling rushed and pressured after the test this week. The conscientious among them apologized for not being able to put their best effort forward on a test that demanded so much so quickly. As for the kids who didn’t finish the test (and there were many), I didn’t bother them with reflective questions. I figured they were pretty discouraged, too. But, hey, deductive reasoning. It is what it is.