Monday, February 19, 2007

Real Standards get On the Hill

I read with great pleasure the recent Ed Week article from Lynn Olson regarding legisative intent to set national standards. Actually, it was more like how I read National Lampoon or Mad Magazine when I was a kid.

Anyway, it seems like the politicians are hard at work looking to see what they can do next after NCLB. The Dodds-Ehlers bill—called the Standards to Provide Educational Achievement for Kids, or SPEAK, Act—is really an attempt to push states to adopt NAEP-like standards for national comparative purposes. According to Olson, the bill would provide up to $4 million in grants to each state adopting the new and voluntary "American education content standards" in math and science. These new content standards would be developed by the National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), the overseers of NAEP. In addition, the SPEAK Act would allow the Secretary of Education to extend the 2014 deadline for No Child Left Behind for states who adopt the new standards.

Let the rhetoric begin! I have commented in this blog and elsewhere about the questions I have regarding NAEP and its standards. Why would we expect states with different content standards than those measured on NAEP to have comparable performance to NAEP? The Olson article also generates other good questions. Suppose for a minute that we (you and I) actually wanted national standards. Would we start by giving the power to create those standards to a national committee like NAGB, comprised of just a handful of people? I doubt it! Furthermore, I hear everyone claiming that our goal is to have all graduating high school students ready for college. I am not against such a goal, per say, but where was I when we debated that this was the purpose for having high school? I am not at all sure that our high schools are ready to teach the current standards, regardless of what people think about them, let alone Algebra II, Physics and Calculus required to prepare students for college.

One additional interesting comment came from the Olson article, namely a quote from noted researcher Daniel Koretz:
"If we want common content standards, we need to do some work, and it's not clear to me that a small, federally appointed board is the right place to do that."
Finally, I can agree with Koretz and be accepted into the Borg.

Monday, February 05, 2007

Chaucer, Beowulf, Literature and...Assessment

I went to a poetry reading last Saturday night at a local bookstore (Northside Book Market) here in Iowa City. So, you thought all us psychometrician types were accountants, engineers or mathematics majors who could not find real jobs? Well, I will have you know that I am trained in Middle English, studied Beowulf, and can recite the Prolog from the Canterbury Tales. But I digress. During this poetry reading, provided by our local anarchist who happens to be living and teaching in China now (go figure), it occurred to me that much of my school experience, both in high school and undergraduate, were filled with classic literature and poetry. Yet, seldom do we measure classics or poetry on either the NCLB assessments or end-of-course assessments that we are all so familiar with. Why is that? We have reading passages that are expository, narrative, informative, and technical, yet few, if any, poems. Is it because we don't value such readings? I doubt it. Just search online for references to Edgar Allen Poe (1.2 million hits) or e. e. cummings (also 1.2 million hits) and see what you find.

I fear that our lack of measuring poetry may be tied to many things. First, it is likely harder to teach than simple reading—which is not simple at all. Certainly it would be harder to measure because the construct of poetry is at least one part art, one part text and one part interpretation. Second, it may not be valued as much now as an academic subject as it was when I was in school. Like Latin, it may have fallen into that "don't really need it anymore" category. Third, it could be because some people don't like schools fooling around with areas close to emotion and passion. A politically insensitive poem is like rap or heavy metal music—something to avoid if possible. Yet such creativity, expression and passion are just what most English Langauage Arts instructors talk about when describing what they want their students to achieve. The rest of us talk about spelling, grammar, and punctuation.

Regardless of the reasons, poetry and in many ways other arts are not being assessed and I speculate are not being taught as much anymore. Tis a pitty, to quote Poe, that "...when his strength failed him at length he met a pilgrim shadow. 'Shadow', said he, 'where can it be, this land of Eldorado? Over the mountains of the moon and down the valley of shadow, ride boldly ride', the shadow replied, 'if you seek for Eldorado.'" Poetry might now be relegated to Eldorado.