While writing my previous post, I happened to grab an 11th grade Common Core ELA Standard in order to illustrate the fact that rSAT is not in fact perfectly aligned with Common Core.
The standard is worded as follows:
Determine two or more central ideas of a text and analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another to provide a complex analysis.
I initially just glanced over the standard (I had selected it at random to make a point), but when I read it carefully, I noticed something interesting about its construction — namely, that it doesn’t really say what it intends to say. In fact, it falls prey to a very common error: the misplaced modifier.
If you consider what the standard is literally saying, the placement of the phrase to provide a complex analysis after the word another implies that the central ideas of the text are responsible for providing complex analyses.
That, however, is ridiculous; the central ideas of a text cannot provide a complex analysis of themselves. Clearly, it is the students who must be able to perform that task!
To make that fact clear, the standard should been written this way:
Determine two or more central ideas of a text, analyze their development over the course of the text, including how they interact and build on one another, and (or: in order to) provide a complex analysis of those ideas.
The non-essential clause links the information after the comma to the information before, thus providing a clear sequence of what students are responsible for doing (determine, analyze, provide).
Or better yet, it could have been written this way:
Provide a complex analysis of a text by determining two or more of its central ideas and analyzing their development, including how they interact and build on one another over the course of the text.
Furthermore, because interact and build are followed by different prepositions (on vs. with), the inclusion of on but not with is also questionable.
For maximum clarity, the phrase should read interact with and build on. The second preposition cannot “apply” to the first verb — that is, it is incorrect to say interact on one another.
So the standard should really read like this:
Provide a complex analysis of a text by determining two or more of its central ideas and analyzing their development, including how they interact with and build on one another over the course of the text.
Now the standard at least says what it intends to say.
This is not only a pedantic grammar exercise, nor is it just a flimsy jab by someone who’s desperate to attack the awesomeness that is Common Core but can’t think of anything better to talk about than grammar. (Look, maybe a few grammar experts like you care about this stuff, but it’s pretty clear what the thing means. Let’s not get so bogged down in the details that we lose sight of what’s really important here — preparing students for college and career readiness.)
This is about people shaping educational policy who have absolutely no business doing so.
In almost any other situation, this type of sloppiness could be overlooked; however, these standards have consequences for millions upon millions (upon millions) of students.
It does not seem unreasonable to ask that English standards, of all things, be written by people who know how to make relatively simple sentences say what they are intended to say. There’s too much at stake for jumbled language to be acceptable.
This, however, is what people who do not actually teach English, or know that much about writing well period, think an ELA standard should look like. They’re trying to sound sophisticated and knowledgeable (“phony gravitas,” as one Yale education professor perfectly put it), but the result is muddled and awkward.
No one — no one — who hasn’t mastered these types of basic constructions should be allowed so much influence over what goes in ELA classrooms across the United States.
Besides, if even the people (person?) who wrote these standards actually did know better, they still did not have their Very Important Document properly edited, either because they were too eager to have it finalized and approved; too lazy to bother; or too arrogant to think that that having it checked was even necessary. Most likely, it was some combination of the three.
And that in itself is also enormously telling.