Invigorated and overwhelmed, I’m freshly nestled home post three day teacher leader conference in New Orleans. While attending, I listened to 2018 National Teacher of the Year Mandy Manning discuss teaching fearLESS (teaching with less fear). I learned more about growth mindset, the importance of recruiting teachers, and cultural competency. But mostly my chosen sessions focused on ELA curriculum shifts, particularly text complexity.
By midafternoon on conference day two, two things became glaringly clear:
- The New Orleans Convention Center is a dementor; it sucked my soul arid. (I’m not knocking the conference AT ALL; it rocked. The convention center itself is cavernous and scary, all dim backlighting and conference tables billowing in death-black robe tablecloths. The stale air permeating the facility was akin to a dementor’s dreaded kiss, leaving me dehydrated and lifeless by day’s end.)
- According to experts, I’ve been testing and teaching my subject matter the wrong way for at least 8 years; if I’ve been doing it wrong, chances are you’ve been doing it wrong too. And I’m a great teacher–and chances are you are too. (I’m not saying I’m doing everything wrong.)
About 8 years ago, Louisiana ELA educators started making the shift to assessing kids with “cold read” (readings that kids hadn’t seen before) tests, the idea being that kids should be able to use the standards that are being taught in the classroom and apply them to any text that’s given to them, essentially moving away from testing kids on the content that we’ve taught them and focusing on mastery of standards. This is more reflective of the way our end of the year state tests work too (Students are given multiple pieces of complex text they’ve never encountered before, answer multiple choice questions about those texts, and then write essays about those texts–all strictly timed.). Disclaimer–this is a MAJOR oversimplification of the process, and I may have botched it. Please bear in mind my recently escaped dementor’s kiss. I’m awaiting Dumbledore to appear with some chocolate for me, and then I’ll be back hunting horcruxes, errrrrr, I mean existing like a rational muggle in no time.
For a few years now, I’ve been lamenting to my fellow coworkers, my mom, willing ears:
- How can you give “cold” literature to kids, timed no less, and expect them to comprehend and analyze it? They could be given anything on those tests! For example, I could be teaching To Kill a Mockingbird and focusing on the Civil Rights Movement and the Great Depression. How does that content help them read a cold read task about the Cold War on a benchmark or standardized test? It doesn’t. I can’t prepare kids’ background knowledge on every single topic/culture/time period/etc. that they encounter.
- Vocabulary is my biggest battle. How can I prepare my kids for every single word that they encounter on a cold read test? Yeah, context clues might help, and they know how to use context clues, but YOU CAN’T FIGURE OUT EVERY SINGLE WORD FROM CONTEXT. And yeah there are roots, prefixes, affixes and other tricks, but again, it’s no panacea. Furthermore, what about the words they encounter in test questions and answer choices where there’s virtually no context? It’s mind-boggling, disorienting even, to think about how limiting this can be for a child to be successful when it comes to reading comprehension, and if they don’t understand what they read, they sure as heck can’t analyze it.
So why highlight these two points and how does it relate to me teaching and testing the wrong way (and quite possibly you too)? Louisiana is currently piloting a program where . . . wait for it . . . the state test aligns to English teachers’ actual content in their classroom . . . because research shows that:
- Teaching solely standard based for ELA doesn’t work. How many of you have been told to develop your lessons around a standard and subsequently gone scrambling around for content that lends itself to teaching said standard while trying to find interrelated texts? [Mrs. Ram raises her hand.] Sidebar–I do rely heavily on my district’s curriculum, but I supplement.
- Giving struggling students texts to read on their “reading level” actually does more harm than good because they’re not grappling with more complicated syntax and vocabulary. Say you’re teaching about the Holocaust at the 8th grade level and decide to give your struggling readers Number the Stars while handing out The Boy in the Striped Pajamas to your more accelerated readers, focusing on teaching the same standards in both texts over the course of reading. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that most English teachers have done this, myself included, but I have moved away from doing this–whether in relation to big pieces of literature or different leveled exit tickets. But look at this chart using ACT data:(image credit) What can you surmise? Hey, how well people do on the ACT has to do with their ability to read complex texts. Also, I learned that it doesn’t matter if students have mastery of skills necessarily. I know if my students have mastered a standard, but if students can’t read a specific complex text independently they’re unable to answer test questions correctly. (Both bullet points 1 and 2’s ideas were discussed in Tim Shanahan’s Ed Talk: “Educational Equity and the Importance of Complex Text.”) This ties in directly with my next bullet.
- Background knowledge is key for success on tackling complex texts. So Recht and Leslie, researchers, did this study known as the baseball experiment. Over-simplistic premise: Let’s give kids a comprehension test about baseball. Look at this:(image credit) Guess what? The kids, no matter their reading ability, who had little prior knowledge of baseball did way worse on the test than kids of any reading ability who were more familiar with baseball. Earth shattering, isn’t it? P.S. this study has been around since 1988, and this is my first time seeing it. I have a master’s degree in curriculum–WHY HAVEN’T I SEEN IT BEFORE? If we learned about it in grad school, I don’t remember it.
Y’all might have been privy to this info before, and while my biggest struggles as a teacher are directly reflected in my main takeaways from the conference, I feel validated in my criticisms of the way we test children, but heartbrokenly irate that we’ve gotten some teaching and testing methods so wrong for almost a decade. For at least this next year, if not two or three, my students are still going to take standardized tests with cold read passages that are not reflective of what my students, your children, are capable of achieving.
But change is on the horizon. Thank goodness. To read more about Louisiana’s Innovative Assessment pilot click here.
Teachable Moment: While I know this post is rambly, all over the place, full of glue words and not written on a particularly high reading level, keep in mind what I’ve been I’ve been telling you. How many of you aren’t teachers who read this post? What teacher jargon did you struggle with? Did you know what a “cold read” task was before reading this? Or even what mastery of a standard entails? Do you know what the standards are? Do you know how to determine what makes a complex text? Do you know what ELA stands for? Chances are if you aren’t an English teacher or even a teacher in general you had to struggle to make meaning with what I was talking about. Then on top of that I made Harry Potter allusions throughout this post. If you’ve never read Harry Potter or seen the movies, are you going to get all of those references? Or is it going to go right over your head? An allusion missed means there’s missing meaning in a text. On that note, do you know what allusion means? Did you figure out what it means based on the context? Or did you just fly by it and register it as a word you don’t know? Think about all the different ways you had to make meaning behind my thoughts, my word choice, the way I built my sentences, the way I structured this post. How many different ways can understanding be hindered? (This idea is taken from Natalie Wexler’s Ed Talk: “The Importance of Background Knowledge” and applied to my own writing.)
And that friends is what our children are trying to do every single day when they’re in my classroom with readings they encounter and why it’s a shame to ask them on a standardized test to read texts they’re completely unfamiliar with.