Thursday, June 13, 2013

UPDATED: Putting off rich curriculum means putting off reading proficiency

Recently, Virginia Governor Bob McDonnell proposed and the General Assembly approved a bill that allows elementary schools to apply for waivers from high-stakes science and social studies testing (aka SOLs) for third graders. So far this testing season, approximately twenty-five public elementary schools have availed themselves of this waiver. The idea is that before struggling readers can learn content they have to master reading comprehension.

Virginia's Deputy Secretary of Education Javaid Siddiqui thinks this is a good idea:
The law, which expires in 2015, is a kind of a pilot program, Siddiqi said. He said that schools with low reading pass rates often have low pass rates in social studies and science because the two are connected. “It’s not about what they know,” Siddiqi said. “They are struggling with comprehension.”
On the one hand, I am all for reducing standardized testing in Virginia. I also acknowledge that the the intention here is worthy: to help struggling students, to not set them up for failure.

However, I'm afraid that the logic is misguided and that this will mean a decrease in social studies and science instruction and an increase in reading test prep. Yes, reading is a gateway to learning and limited instruction in reading strategies can be helpful, but the reason these students are struggling to comprehend what they read is because they aren't learning enough content. It's true that "it's not about what they know;" it's about what they don't know and what they won't know if they spend so much time studying reading as a subject. A valid test of reading would have passages related to the subject matter (in science, social studies, literature, art, music, pe, etc.) the students have already been taught.

Putting off content-rich instruction to "focus on reading" will only serve to put off progress in reading proficiency.

UPDATE: Lisa Hansel picked up this post as well as  this great commentary by Robert D. Shepherd in a post on the state of language arts instruction and curriculum in the context of the Common Core Standards. While I was thrilled she chose to highlight my post, I wanted to clarify where I stood on the Common Core Standards and on Virginia's decision to not adopt them.

Here's what I said in the comments:

Thank you so much for picking up my post--I am flattered. I can empathize with your optimism about having a set of national standards. I am also in favor of having a broad set of national standards.  
However, though I respect that you are comfortable doing so, I am not comfortable endorsing the Common Core Standards as a step forward, nor do I harbor any regret thus far that Virginia has not adopted them.  
Although I am by no means an expert, from what I have read (see my commentaries here and here), the Common Core ELA standards at least in practice seem to facilitate more of the same approach to Language Arts instruction as before, meaning heavy in the out-of-context texts and reading strategies department. I also share Paul Bruno's skepticism as stated in his comment on this post. Even if the standards are appropriate and strong, I don't see how they can succeed if they are being filtered through such a rigid and corrupting accountability structure (see my commentary here).  
Finally, from what I can tell, the process by which the Common Core Standards and associated assessments was not transparent or inclusive of stakeholders. And now, there is no real means by which to provide actionable feedback and for modifications to be made before they hit the Big Time. 
From the standpoint of a parent, teacher, and advocate, the distance between me and the top is much closer and the route much clearer to the district and state level in Virginia than to the Common Core level (does anyone even know where that is?)

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for another thoughtful and judicious post. I'd add that the opportunity costs of a focus on prepping kids for a reading test may be felt not just in subjects like Social Studies and Science--there are opportunity costs for reading as well. A focus on test prep for reading, especially in the early grades, does not necessarily help kids become better readers, even if it helps raise their reading test scores in the short term . Now, it's natural to think that if you raise reading scores for 9-year-olds, those 9-year-olds will go on and be better readers later as well. Interestingly, this is not necessarily true, and you don't only have to look at Waldorf schools to see this is true, though they are a cool natural experiment; just look at the recent NAEP report, whose first headline is something like "Scores Go Up For 9 and 13 Year Olds But Not For 17 Year Olds."

    Anyway, thanks for the post.

    (I would have embedded these links if I could have, but I'm inept:


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