I'm two weeks away from the ISAT—the Illinois Standard Achievement Test. The very mention of standardized testing can raise a teacher's blood pressure and make her break pencils in two.
I'm not going on a tirade about the ISAT. How it doesn't accurately measure the myriad of quality lessons I have taught my students. How it could pressure me into dumbing down my curriculum and force me to "teach to the test." How it is a gross waste of instructional time, showing students how to bubble in circles and write boring, highly formulized extended response essays for the reading assessment. How it's making the test publishers filthy rich.
As annoying as it is to cut into my curriculum for two weeks of test prep and another week or two to administer this test, I realize that standardized testing does have a single valid purpose, which could lead to other noble things. My high performing kids usually perform high, my low performing kids usually perform low, and my average performing kids are usually somewhere in between. The test is not really designed to inform me-the-teacher, but the taxpayers.
Even though I work at a charter school which fundraises roughly 20 percent of the school's budget, the other 80 percent comes from public dollars. Traditional public schools receive nearly all of their funds from taxes. So it's logical that the state board of education would want to objectively assess students for basic skills they should have acquired in school. How else can the public know how well students are performing academically?
This year, 20 percent of Illinois' test is written to the Common Core Standards and the Chicago Public Schools district has already told its educators to brace for a 17-20 percent drop in scores over last year because of it. If this correlation proves true, it might also serve to prove a long debated, contentious argument: The quality of our academic instruction can directly impact students' standardized test scores. (The only educational position more controversial than this is linking teacher salaries to the test scores. That's for another blog.)
As more of the Common Core standards get expressed on each year's test—reaching 100 percent of the test by 2014-15 in Illinois—educators will be challenged to implement the new standards in their everyday teaching. The theory is that elevating the rigor of the standards will improve teaching instruction in the classroom, thus improving student learning, thus raising test scores. The students who were already struggling to meet the old state standards will not stand a chance on the new standardized test if schools do not quickly adjust their instructional approach at every grade level, starting with kindergarten.
Looking back on the old Illinois state standards, I realize how embarrassingly simple-minded they were compared to the Common Core Standards. When I started in teaching in 2004, I had to look up the Illinois standards for every lesson and mark them on my lesson plans every week. It pointed me to the concepts I was supposed to teach but put no emphasis on pushing student's higher order thinking skills. When those standards were first adopted in 1985, the goal was getting kids to graduate from high school, not college.
I've found the Common Core, however, to be much more malleable and open-ended. The critical thought process behind what I am teaching is just as important as the content. Therefore, I often allow my students to self-select their topics based on interest, though the depth of thinking required to achieve the objective is the same. My teacher-made assessments under the Common Core philosophy requires a detailed rubric, whereas many of my old assessments were formulaic, judged simply as right or wrong.
Truth be told, I had shifted to a more inquiry-based, process-oriented teaching style long before the Common Core standards were introduced. In fact, teachers everywhere have always elevated their rigor, regardless of what their state standards dictated. And I suppose the opposite is also true: Some teachers teach only to the traditional state standards, and some even below the standard.
Perhaps the Common Core standards will encourage the low-performing teachers to improve. After all, if these teachers do not embrace the new standards—or exceed them—their inaction will haunt them once their standardized test results come back. The taxpayers who fund their salaries certainly won't be happy. And, if nothing else, their students will suffer.