by Blair Howard
The contracts that public school educators operate under are often broad and offer many protections for educators. Yet, for all of the processes that a contract puts into place, the district has a great deal of control over what we teach, how we teach it, and where we teach it.
The California Education Code gives school districts the power to set the conditions in which we teach, what materials we use, how we teach the standards, what assessments we use and where we teach. Because DJUSD has high expectations of teachers, they afford us the respect we deserve by allowing teachers to determine the best way to instruct their students. This allows us to teach things differently and more effectively than teachers in other school districts who have mandated pacing guides and scripted lessons.
Hopefully members of the community have noticed the new Common Core standards being implemented at their child’s school. One of the goals of the Common Core standards is to give teachers the freedom to create meaningful lessons and relevant learning experiences that allow all students to develop a deep understanding of content and a mastery of skills for both college and career paths. This is a promise that I still hold on to, but already I am already seeing dynamics that concern me at both a district and state level.
This fall, before many teachers had an opportunity to begin implementing the Common Core, elementary school teachers were directed to begin creating Performance Tasks. While you may not be familiar with the term, a Performance Task is a type of extended assessment, depending on your child’s grade level, it could involve reading multiple sources, synthesizing information and writing to a prompt in a set amount of time.
The aim of the district directive was to begin moving assessments towards what would be expected in the new Common Core state tests. This directive was problematic for several reasons. First, because the Common Core assessments are still in the process of being written. In our state, they are known as the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium or SBAC.
The assessments this year were not normed, and were merely a test run for future SBAC assessments. Secondly, because they were tasked with creating assessments, teachers lost valuable time to not only become more comfortable with the new standards, but to create new lessons aligned with the Common Core. More importantly, while good teaching often includes backward planning (this is teacher speak for planning lessons that focus on multiple learning goals), it is usually not with an assessment in mind, but rather the student centric goals of the lesson or unit.
An assessment should support the higher goal of meaningful student learning-the assessment itself should never be the goal.
When the good news came that state standards testing would be minimal this year, I was encouraged that educators could free ourselves from the “teach to the test” mentality that pervaded previous tests, no matter how much we resisted it. I hoped that without state scores that would drive AYP and API scores, teachers would be liberated of the feeling that we are always being judged by our students’ test scores.
I hoped that piloting the new Smarter Balanced assessments would not put too much pressure on educators to prepare for these tests. But this spring it seemed like there was more energy and effort expended to get students tested on computers, to get them familiar with new testing formats than for the tests to assess their understanding.
Even though the test scores are meaningless this year, I am concerned that that our teaching is being driven not by our interpretations of the standards, but by the form of the assessments.
As I mentioned earlier, SBAC is still working out exactly how to test the Common Core. It is unclear to me if the assessments reflect the values and goals of the Common Core. If you are interested in the SBAC, I encourage you to explore a practice test at: here.
Parents of school-aged children may have started seeing new approaches in the work their children do in school or bring home for homework. Social media has also spread some examples of Common Core assessments, often met with confusion, anger and derision. Some parents and states are questioning or rejecting the Common Core. While I advocate for questioning of most things, most of the time, I feel that the Common Core is being judged not on how educators are implementing it, but on how materials and assessments created by companies seeking a profit envision the Common Core should be implemented in the classroom.
Therefore, it is not an entirely fair critique of the new standards, but is rather a statement against private corporations who are not stakeholders, cobbling together lesson plans that are not designed to meet the specific learning needs of students in a community. It is in the interest of every stakeholder to ensure that if Common Core is to be implemented, it is done in a sensible way that allows educators to control its implementation in their classrooms, not by outside forces seeking to derive profit from implementation, or by teaching to an assessment.