18 December 2016

The new administration, Common Core, and the new SAT

Reuters’ Renée Dudley has come out with yet another exposé about the continuing mess at the College Board. (Hint: Coleman’s “beautiful vision” isn’t turning out to be all that attractive.)

This time around: what will happen to the new supposedly Common Core-aligned SAT if Common Core disappears under the incoming, purportedly anti-Core presidential administration? 

As Dudley writes:

The Core’s English Language Arts standards call on students to grapple with important readings, including hallowed U.S. documents such as the Declaration of Independence and works of American literature. Coleman’s redesigned SAT embraced the same concept. The Core’s reading standards “focus on students’ ability to read carefully and grasp information … based on evidence in the text” – a pillar of the new SAT. And the Core’s math standards call for “greater focus on fewer topics” – another principle echoed in Coleman’s new SAT.

Former College Board vice president [Hal] Higginbotham was among the first to raise concerns about hitching the SAT’s future to the Common Core. 

In his February 2013 response to Coleman’s “beautiful vision,” Higginbotham noted that some states wouldn’t begin implementing the learning standards until the 2014-2015 school year, the same time period in which Coleman wanted to launch the redesigned SAT. It would take years for teachers and students to get fully up to speed on the new curriculum, he and others argued.

“That circumstance leads me to wonder whether all students will have arrived at the starting line at the same time and whether the playing field for them will be level,” Higginbotham wrote in his memo to Coleman. Some students might be “more comfortable and competent than others in what will be presented” on a test aligned with the Common Core, he wrote.

As a consequence, a Common Core-based SAT “will inadvertently favor students from those geographies that have made the most progress” with the standards, Higginbotham wrote. Such a situation “raises fundamental questions of fairness and equity.”

and later: 

It’s unclear how Trump’s election – and his choice of a Common Core opponent for secretary of education – might affect the SAT and the College Board. Coleman hasn’t spoken publicly about the president-elect’s views.

I’ve followed Dudley’s series of articles on the Common Core with great interest, and for the most part, I think she’s done a very valuable service in terms of revealing some of the more serious problems plaguing the new exam — problems that include the recycling of recent exams so that students received the same exam they had already taken, the leaking of test forms before the exam, and the inclusion of items that did not meet the specifications set out by the College Board. 

In this case, however, Dudley’s reporting inadvertently (I assume) encourages some fundamental misunderstandings about Common Core, what it actually involves in terms of curriculum, and how it relates to the redesigned SAT. 

A few key points here.

First, in regards to the idea that Common Core could be uniformly rescinded: the federal government’s role in CCSS is limited, at least in terms of imposing the standards. CC was adopted by individual states, and individual states will decide whether to retain or abandon the Standards (or pretend to abandon them while renaming them State Standards).

To be fair, Dudley does mention that CCSS was adopted on a state-by-state basis; her concern is that anti-Core sentiment at the top may translate into more states dropping the Standards. 

That, however, brings me to my second point. As Diane Ravitch points out, the DOE may be effectively outsourced to Jeb Bush and Co., major proponents of Common Core. Coleman even released an announcement *praising* Betsy DeVos’s appointment as Secretary of Education.

Despite nominal political divisions, all of these people are effectively on the same side, at least where charters, school “reform” (privatization), school choice, etc. are involved. There may be degrees of disagreement over, say, the value of vouchers or the accreditation of for-profit vs. non-profit charters, but they are basically ideologically aligned. 

As Steven Singer has written about (link also courtesy of Ravitch), Devos, who has claimed to be opposed to the Core:  

[Is] a board member of Jeb Bush’s pro-Common Core think tank, Foundation for Excellence in Education, where she hangs out with prominent Democratic education reformers like Bill Gates and Eli Broad…

She founded, funds and serves on the board of the Great Lakes Education Project (GLEP), an organization dedicated to the implementation and maintenance of Common Core…

She’s even spent millions lobbying politicians in her home state of Michigan asking them NOT to repeal Common Core…

Next time, Dudley might want to take a piece of edu-speak to heart and “dig deep” before taking anyone in the president-elect’s circle literally. 

Third, the notion that schools can somehow teach a Common Core “curriculum,” and that students who have not used that curriculum (at least on the verbal side) will be at a significant disadvantage, reveals the extent to which popular understanding and coverage of the Core are muddled.

To reiterate: the redesigned SAT does not test any specific body of knowledge related to English, nor does the Core require significant concrete knowledge beyond vague formal skills (comparing and contrasting, identifying main ideas, etc.) whose mastery largely depends on students’ knowledge about the subject at hand.

In the eleventh grade standards, for instance, U.S. Historical Documents are provided as examples — Madison’s Federalist 10 is cited as a source for analyz[ing] how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term or terms over the course of a text, but the text itself is not actually required reading. 

While a handful of documents are mentioned by name (The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, the primary directive is to analyze “seminal texts” and seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance. (http://www.corestandards.org/ELA-Literacy/RI/11-12/)

As for the new SAT, the majority of the Reading questions on that exam are effectively designed to test whether students understand that texts say what they say because they say it — in other words, comprehension. 

The questions are phrased in a byzantine manner, to be sure, but that is primarily to give the illusion that they are testing skills more sophisticated than the ones they are actually testing (and far less sophisticated than those tested on the old SAT). 

The combination of vague standards and quasi-random selection of historical passages for the exam means that the best-prepared students are those who have prior knowledge of the passages in question.

But because the College Board does not publish a comprehensive list of documents, movements, individuals, etc. with which students should be familiar (that would cross the line from “standards” to “content”), preparation for that portion of the exam largely depends on what students happen have covered in history class — which in turn depends on individual schools, even individual teachers. And that is a matter of chance, on many levels. 

Leveling the playing field? Hardly. 

That’s the fundamental problem with the coy, standards-aren’t-curriculum-but-they-sort-of-are game the College Board is trying to play. Students’ ability to employ skills such as analyzing language, identifying main ideas, or evaluating sources, is always to some extent dependent on their knowledge. The unspoken assumption of the Core seems to be that students will of course be learning formal skills in context of a well-structured, coherent curriculum, but that’s often not at all how things work in practice. 

If it is never made clear what specific content students must master, and teachers are trained to focus primarily on formal skills, students are likely to never acquire the knowledge they need to apply the formal skills in any meaningful way (got that?).

Failure to understand that means any coherent conversation about the problems with the Core is a non-starter. 

As for the relationship between student performance on the Verbal portion of the SAT and access to a Common-Core-aligned curriculum … Anyone who thinks that a student whose English classes have been devoted to endlessly reiterating the importance of using “evidence” — that is, citing from a text — to “prove” that a book says what it says will necessarily be better prepared for the SAT than a student who has learned something of substance, really does not understand the issues at play here at all. 

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