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For the Common Core, A Different Sort of Benchmark

Years ago, when we were putting our New Standards project together, Phil Daro, the director of New Standards, and the standards design team, headed by Ann Borthwick, decided to do something very important.  They built the standards around examples of student work that met the standards.  We had statements of the usual sort—the student should know this and be able to do that—but they felt that these statements were necessarily abstract.  To know what they really meant, both student and teacher would need examples of work that actually met the standards.  Ann had previously directed the effort to build the famous Victorian Certificate standards in Victoria, Australia, which peppered their standards document with examples, but New Standards was the first to make the examples the very heart of the work.  

Our standards consisted mainly of a series of performance tasks given to students and, for each task, an example of exemplary student work (actual student work, in fact).  Each piece of student work was annotated to show which piece of the student work illustrated the relevant standard, with a note about why the work met the standard.  Any given piece of student work would typically contain sections illustrating several different standards.

Both students and teachers would look at our standards books, and, say, over and over again, "Oh, now I know what they mean.  I can do that."  Or, they might say, "I cannot do it yet, but now that I know what is wanted, I know what I have to do to meet the standard."  Teachers would post examples of work that met the standards on classroom walls.  Students would critique their own work in relation to the examples.  It was the examples, not the declarative statements of the standards, that really "set the standard."

In a way, there was nothing new in this.  For many years prior, most of the top performing countries had issued their standards and then published—nationally, sometimes in the newspapers—both the questions asked—all of them—and the highest scoring responses, often in the form of short essays, because all or most of the questions demanded essays or worked out problems, not checked boxes in multiple choice format.  Both teachers and students in those countries routinely pored over the answers with the best marks to understand what the people scoring the tests were looking for.  Because of the way the questions were asked and the kind of constructed response that was required, there was no way to "test prep" for these exams.  The only way to succeed on them was to demonstrate real command of the material and be able to respond with the kind of analysis, synthesis and just plain good writing that was called for.

I was very disappointed when I saw that the Common Core did not follow the New Standards example.  Like the Victorian Certificate, some examples were included, but the standards were not built around them.  Most important, I see that, although the two consortia building tests set to the Common Core will be releasing sample questions, most of the prompts will call for choices among multiple choice responses.  There will be many fewer performance tasks calling for open-ended responses of the kind just described than they had promised when they began their work.  I do not doubt that their tests will be much better than the vast majority of the tests that states have been using for accountability purposes, but they will still, in my opinion, fall well short of what they could and should have been had it not been for federal policy that requires far more testing than will be found in the any of the high performing countries.

But we do have an example of the kind of approach to standard-setting I admire that should be getting much more attention than it has yet received: the work of Will Fitzhugh, publisher of The Concord Review, a journal of high school student history essays refereed by Fitzhugh.  I say "refereed" because Fitzhugh's standards are very high and the quality of the essays is consistently remarkable.

The Concord Review is arguably the world standard for history writing at the high school level, a true benchmark.  Fitzhugh has published standards for the essays that appear there, but the published essays themselves really set the standard.  Students and teachers know that, and they study the essays hard to understand what it takes to get an essay published in the journal.  I might say that the standard is not just a standard for history writing, but, at the same time, a standard for writing.

If you have read what I have written here with a note of skepticism, perhaps you will believe the testimony of a high school history teacher, John Wardle, head of the history department at Northern Secondary School in Toronto, Ontario (I forgot to mention that publication in The Concord Review is open to high school students all over the world, which it why it can reasonably claim to set an international benchmark for the quality of high school history writing).  Here's what Wardle had to say in a letter to Fitzhugh:

"Please find enclosed four essays for your consideration.  All of these girls were students in my Modern Western Civilization class here at Northern Secondary School.

I would also like to compliment you on the consistently high standards of The Concord Review. Our collection of them has proven to be a terrific tool for my senior students.  For a few, it gives them ideas for topics of their own.  For many more, it provides outstanding material for their own research.  For all of them it is the benchmark against which they can measure their own writing and historical skills.  Since we began setting aside class time for reading them, student essay writing has improved considerably.

From a teacher's point of view, it is tremendously rewarding to see students get engrossed in topics of their own choosing, enthusiastically pursue them and then produce strong, correct papers.  The discussions before, during and especially after this creative process are always memorable.  Almost without exception, the students feel that, by the end, they have gained a solid understanding and mastery of a particular aspect of history.  By producing first-rate work, they also know they are ready for, and able to handle, post-secondary education.

When I returned their essays this year, for example the first question they posed each other was not 'What was your mark?' but rather 'Can I read your paper?' They spent the entire 76 minute period sharing essays, exchanging thoughts and genuinely learning from each other.  I merely watched and listened. Professionally, it was a wonderful experience.  As a catalyst, The Concord Review deserves a great deal of the credit for this kind of academic success."

For years, Fitzhugh has been trying to find a foundation that would supply him with the modest amount of money needed to find a successor to run The Concord Review when he retires, which will happen rather sooner than later, as Fitzhugh is getting on in years.  So far, there have been no takers.  Which is deeply puzzling to me.  If I were a foundation that had expressed an interest in doing whatever is necessary to bring American education up to a world standard, especially if I were interested in promoting what has come to be called "deeper learning," I do not think I could find a more productive use of my funds than to invest them in the preservation of this treasure, truly a global benchmark not only in the field of history but in the kind of disciplined inquiry and first class writing that ought to be the hallmark of high standards everywhere.

Follow NCEE @CtrEdEcon.

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