BY CLAUDIA SWISHER
Close reading … we hear a lot about that in the Common Core Standards written by David Coleman. We’ve seen examples of his interpretation of the strategy. If this is, indeed, something we value in education, teachers should practice close reading in their own professional life. As always, we teach better when we have had experience in the work.
There is no better opportunity to practice close reading – re-reading passages, analyzing on the word and phrase level, reflecting on meaning, the development of ideas – than to read a legislative bill. I confess I’m a novice, having only spent the last few years really digging into the rules of reading a bill. But I appreciate going to the source and finding my own interpretation instead of relying on someone else’s reading.
When I shot off my letter about standardized, high-stakes testing, I received a speedy reply from Dennis Casey, vice chair of the House Education Committee, a Republican. He suggested I look at his bill on testing, and gave me his cell phone number to call so we could visit. I was, frankly, stunned by this open response, having spent the past few years soundly ignored by every policymaker in the state.
In our subsequent conversation, I was stunned to learn his own party leadership is actively opposing this bill. HB 1035 has three major opponents: Superintendent Janet Barresi, Gov. Mary Fallin, and the Oklahoman. Enough for me to love it even before I read! It enjoys strong support from both houses: 94-7 in the House, and 42-3 in the Senate.
That kind of bipartisan support is rare in our state on education issues.
Rep. Casey described the mean-spirited editorial that denigrated his experiences as an educator and Coach of the Year as evidence of his lowering standards [Have spent 30 minutes searching online for the editorial, and I can’t find it. Any help you can give me is appreciated!]. As an educator, I was offended … not for the first time.
Let’s never forget one of the editorial writers at the Oklahoman is married to Dr. Barresi’s former Chief-of-Staff. I’m sure they still visit.
So, my lesson on close reading. Check to see who the authors are, and if there seems to be bi-partisan support. There are two forms of the bill, and the “Engrossed Senate Amendment to Engrossed House” has co-authors from both parties: Casey and Ed Cannaday, a Democrat and former educator, as is Casey, have both signed on. So did Sen. John Ford, Republican chair of the Education Committee.
I’ll be honest and tell you I do not understand the technical language sometimes, and if I were truly close-reading, I would stop my reading to define every word. And since they’re legislative terms, I’d be wrong since I wouldn’t have the right reference materials.
On to my reading … I’ve learned if print has been crossed out, those are changes that will be thrown out of the new legislation. If sections are underlined, those are the new provisions … the new action to be taken.
Most of the bill seems to be the original high-stakes legislation, setting up Criterion Reference Testing [CRT] for elementary and middle school students, and End of Instruction [EOI] testing for high school students. No underlining, no striking out of language.
The additions, though, are fascinating, and they’re the reason I support this legislation that passed with overwhelming votes.
Changes to the original bill begin on page 12.
Right now high school students must pass English 2 [with a writing and objective component], Algebra 1, and take Algebra 2, Geometry, English 3 [also two components – writing and objective, U.S. History, and Biology 1. They must pass two additional tests in order to graduate. At a conservative two-hour estimate per test [two tests for English 2 and 3], that’s nearly 20 hours of standardized, high-stakes testing during students’ career.
Diplomas are now withheld to students who passed all their classes, earned all their credits to graduation, have been accepted into an institution of higher education, but have not passed the required four tests. The State Board did just that last summer, and it will happen again this year.
Under HB 1035, students will have multiple pathways – none of them easy, none of them a “gimme” – to showing test [I will not say “objective”] proficiency in these subjects. If a student does not pass the EOI, he or she may take the ACT, the SAT, a CLEP test and score one point higher than proficient, and use this evidence to “pass.” Advanced Placement testing can also be used, as can International Baccalaureate exams. All of these tests are challenging, nationally-accepted exams. I believe they also carry considerable financial costs. The devil’s in the details, but I see this as a positive step toward graduation for all our students.
I LOVE this statement: “The State Board of Education shall not limit the ability of a student to demonstrate mastery of academic content to any one approved alternate exam.” In other words, this legislation gives kids options to show mastery, and the SDE can’t veto their attempts.
The other provision my students and I heartily support is the language that will exempt students from taking additional EOIs once they’ve passed their four. English 2, Algebra 1 are required, and must be passed, and curiously, Biology 1 is a required test … but once they’ve passed four, they may opt out of any other testing.
I overheard a senior telling about being pulled out of class to take an EOI that is completely meaningless to her, since she’d already passed her four.
I’ve watched students completely blow off that seventh test, out of frustration and anger at a system that requires them to take tests that no university accepts as evidence of competence, that have absolutely no importance to them.
But there is language that will allow students to choose to take more tests. And I know some kids who would do that if given the choice. Most would opt to stay in class and learn.
Education “reformers,” including our state leadership, strongly support multiple pathways to teacher certification. A teacher who moved to Oklahoma with current, out-of-state certification must take the same tests [enriching Pearson in the process] as the Frito-Lay driver looking for a career change in the waiting room with her. Take a test and you’re a teacher.
Why should we afford multiple-pathways to teacher certification, and deny the same consideration, the same respect, to our students?
I also understand this is not a perfect analogy … alternative certification rests firmly on ONE standardized, high-stakes test. HB1035 expands that to several other difficult assessments.
This bill does NOT dumb-down graduation requirements; it does NOT lower standards. Does the Oklahoman editorial writer truly believe our state EOIs are harder to pass than the ACT, or an AP exam? From letters in response, it sounds like the editorial writer cherry-picked his or her data.
This bill does respect our students as learners and says clearly, “we’re here to help you succeed and we have some options for you to pursue.”
NOW, what I’d rather have is a bill that does away with all these tests, but that ain’t gonna happen in this political climate. We’ll have to watch more testing debacles like last week, more kids fail, more horror stories. Then, maybe we’ll get the bill I really want.
In the meantime, HB 1035, after a close reading, is, I believe, the best option we have to date. Please contact Gov. Fallin and tell her you want her to sign this when it crosses her desk.
Rep. Casey and I have continued to talk, and he told me this: “I agree that many items need to be addressed. I was hoping to address that students who scored well on explore, plan, ACT, etc. did not need to again show mastery on another battery of test. This could motivate students to do well. It would also allow less testing and put a focus on students who need it most.”
And: “I also have no doubt in my mind that some students after passing the first four do not always put their best effort in the remaining three EOI. I sure would hate that my evaluation would weigh too heavily on a child who did not try on a test. I look forward to the interim where the Senate and House will do a study in order to take a good look at the procedure now in place.”
We need to keep reaching out to our legislators; we may find others who are willing to talk and have an honest dialogue.
Standardized testing tells us about learning as much as Reality TV tells us about reality.
– Claudia Swisher, an occasional contributor to The Oklahoma Observer, teaches at Norman North High School and is a National Board Certified Teacher