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Five ways to improve literacy learning (that work better than high-stakes tests) (

The following letter from Sandy Hayes, president of the National Council of Teachers of English to organization members, supports a moratorium on the high-stakes consequences of standardized tests aligned to the Common Core State Standards. American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten made the call for a moratorium in April because teachers haven’t had enough time to properly absorb and create curriculum around the standards. A number of organizations and education activists from different sides of the education debate have supported the call, though Jeb Bush’s Chiefs for Change, a group of former and current state education superintendents, opposed it. Hayes also details five ways to help improve literacy that would be better investments than more high-stakes tests.

Dear Council Members:


Ever since NCTE provided a series of thoughtful critiques of the draft ELA Common Core Standards documents starting in 2009, the Council has been consistent in opposing implementation measures that would reduce teachers’ flexibility in designing instruction, choosing materials, or using appropriate assessments to engage learners and improve equity across all classrooms. It is clear that rushing into the next generation of high stakes assessments, long before implementation of significant improvements in the organizational conditions needed to advance learning, is a recipe for disaster. Thus, we join organizations like AFT and courageous administrators like Montgomery County Schools Superintendent Joshua Starr in calling for a moratorium on standardized testing and immediate suspension of the practice of evaluating teachers based on student scores on standardized tests.


NCTE is not merely opposing flawed implementation schemes; we are building the case for constructive alternatives — practical plans for building capacity to improve literacy learning in all schools. Our recent collaboration with 30 other education organizations through the National Center for Literacy Education (NCLE) initiative yielded a compelling report on the current status of support for professional learning in schools: “Remodeling Literacy Learning: Making Room for What Works.” The findings, gathered from a stratified sample of 2,404 respondents and validated by a wider sampling of more than 10,000 respondents, led to generation of five major policy goals. Investing in these will yield much richer results for literacy learners in all disciplines than an expensive new battery of high stakes tests:


1.    Support educators’ knowledge of literacy pertinent to their content areas. 77% of educators agreed that developing students’ literacy is one of the most important aspects of their job, and yet relatively little attention is paid to cultivating knowledge of key literacy teaching concepts in the disciplines.


2.  Promote active collaboration among educators to deepen student learning. The research study showed a strong correlation between the routine practice of collaboration among educators and more rapid spread of effective practices across a school or system. Yet, nearly all of the attention on teacher evaluation is focused on individual teachers (and this, in turn, is increasingly tied to short-term fluctuations in test scores). Time and money is better focused on building the capacity of faculty, across disciplines, to build teaching expertise and reach shared agreements about practices they will follow to support student growth.


3.    Invest in professional learning that is ongoing, job-embedded, collaborative, and linked to engaging literacy learners across grades and subjects. Educators reported a clear preference for professional learning opportunities that they helped to select, that involved collaboration with colleagues, and that had direct application to their daily craft. Yet data also suggest that time allocated for this kind of professional learning is being reduced in many schools. If we want to improve student learning over time, attention must be paid to strengthening the conditions that help educators work together to translate their learning into practice.


4.    Deploy educator time to maximize the development of collective capacity across a school or system. The numbers of hours US teachers spend in isolation from other professionals ranks among the highest across economically-advantaged national school systems. We know that educator capacity to meet changing student needs emerges during time devoted to professional learning, application of learning, and assessment of that application. This is a vital element of school system health that is rarely measured or prioritized as an element of reform.


5.    Foster shared agreements about literacy among educators to deepen learning in every subject. Educators understand that if we want to improve equity and opportunity in our schools, we need a coordinated approach that features seamless support in literacy instruction as students advance through preschool, elementary school, middle school, and high school. The knowledge upon which these agreements are forged comes from educators and school leaders who work with students daily; it can’t be imposed from outside. Successful systems and schools foster shared agreements about literacy by providing opportunities for educators across disciplines to share insights and questions, and consistently reflect upon multiple forms of evidence of student learning as they revise and update their professional practice.


At the 2012 NCTE annual convention business meeting, Council members resolved that we would “critique and oppose [standards] implementation policies when they adversely affect social and educational equity.” There is great risk that whatever good could come from new standards would be completely undermined by rushed implementation of standardized tests that would reduce school time for teaching and learning, attach high stakes consequences for students and teachers before any serious investment is made in improving conditions for learning, and rely heavily on technology for testing when there is ample evidence of persistent gaps in student access.


Real accountability for improving schools requires us to make smart decisions about measuring the factors that drive student engagement and achievement.  Educators across all discipline, levels, and regions have provided a crisp picture of what those factors are.  Let’s take the time needed to nurture the expertise and collaboration that research shows will advance learning before defaulting to tests that harbor little promise for improving student opportunity or equity.



Sandy Hayes, NCTE President


Valerie Strauss covers education and runs The Answer Sheet blog.



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Valerie Strauss · May 31, 2013

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