Sunday, January 25, 2015

Concerns about Accountability Testing

Why don’t you write more about the new tests?

I haven’t written much about PARCC or SBAC—or the other new tests that other states are taking on—in part because they are not out yet. There are some published prototypes, and I was one of several people asked to examine the work product of these consortia. Nevertheless, the information available is very limited, and I fear that almost anything I may write could be misleading (the prototypes are not necessarily what the final product will turn out to be).

However, let me also say that, unlike many who strive for school literacy reform and who support higher educational standards, I’m not all that enthused about the new assessments. 

Let me explain why.

1. I don't think the big investment in testing is justified. 

I’m a big supporter of teaching phonics and phonological awareness because research shows that to be an effective way to raise beginning reading achievement. I have no commercial or philosophical commitment to such teaching, but trust the research. There is also strong research on the teaching of vocabulary, comprehension, and fluency, and expanding the amount of teaching is a powerful idea, too.

I would gladly support high-stakes assessment if it had a similarly strong record of stimulating learning, but that isn't the case.

Test-centered reform is expensive, and it has not been proven to be effective. The best studies of it that I know reveal either extremely slight benefits, or somewhat larger losses (on balance, it is—at best—a draw). Having test-based accountability, does not lead to better reading achievement.

(I recognize that states like Florida have raised achievement and they had high-stakes testing. The testing may have been part of what made such reforms work, but you can't tell if the benefits weren't really due to the other changes (e.g., professional development, curriculum, instructional materials, amount of instruction) that were made simultaneously.)

2. I doubt that new test formats—no matter how expensive—will change teaching for the good.

In the early 1990s, P. David Pearson, Sheila Valencia, Robert Reeve, Karen Wixson, Charles Peters, and I were involved in helping Michigan and Illinois develop innovative tests; tests that included entire texts and with multipe-response question formats that did away with the one-correct answer notion. The idea was that if we had tests that looked more like “good instruction,” then teachers who tried to imitate the tests would do a better job. Neither Illinois nor Michigan saw learning gains as a result of these brilliant ideas.

That makes me skeptical about both PARCC and SBAC. Yes, they will ask some different types of questions, but that doesn’t mean the teaching that results will improve learning. I doubt that it will.

I might be more excited if I didn’t expect companies and school districts to copy the formats, but miss the ideas. Instead of teaching kids to think deeply and to reason better, I think they’ll just put a lot of time into two-part answers and clicking. 

3. Longer tests are not really a good idea.

We should be trying to maximize teaching and minimize testing (minimize, not do away with). We need to know how states, school districts, and schools are doing. But this can be figured out with much less testing. We could easily estimate performance on the basis of samples of students—rather than entire student bodies—and we don’t need annual tests; with samples of reliable sizes, the results just don’t change that frequently.

Similarly, no matter how cool a test format may seem, it is probably not worth the extra time needed to administer. I suspect the results of these tests will correlate highly with the tests that they replace. If that's the case, will you really get any more information from these tests? And, if not, then why not use these testing days to teach kids instead? Anyone interested in closing poverty gaps, or international achievement gaps, is simply going to have to bite the bullet: more teaching, not more testing, is the key to catching up.

4. The new reading tests will not provide evidence on skills ignored in the past.

The new standards emphasize some aspects of reading neglected in the past. However, these new tests are not likely to provide any information about these skills. Reading tests don't work that way (math tests do, to some extent). We should be able to estimate the Lexile levels that kids are attaining, but we won’t be able to tell if they can reason better or are more critical thinkers (they may be, but these tests won’t reveal that).

Reading comprehension tests—such as those used by all 50 states for accountability purposes—can tell us how well kids can comprehend. They cannot tell which skills the students have (or even if reading comprehension actually depends on such a collection of discrete skills). Such tests, if designed properly, should provide clues about the level of language difficulty that students can negotiate successfully, but beyond that we shouldn’t expect any new info from the items.

On the other hand, we should expect some new information. The new tests are likely to have different cut scores or criteria of success. That means these tests will probably report much lower scores than in the past. Given the large percentage of boys and girls who “meet or exceed” current standards, graduate from high school, and enter college, but who lack basic skills in reading, writing, and/or mathematics, it would only be appropriate that their scores be lower in the future.


However, I predict that when those low-test scores arrive, there will be a public outcry that some politicians will blame on the new standards. Instead of recognizing that the new tests are finally offering honest info about how their kids are doing, they’ll believe that the low scores are the result of the poor standards and there'll be a strong negative reaction. Instead of militating for better schools, the public will be stimulated to support lower standards.

The new tests will only help if we treat them differently than the old tests. I hope that happens, but I'm skeptical.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Why Does He Want to Hurt Kindergartners?

Two groups that are strong advocates in early childhood education (Defending the Early Years and the Alliance for Childhood), released a report called Reading Instruction in Kindergarten: Little to Gain and Much to Lose (see http://deyproject.org/2015/01/13/our-new-report-reading-instruction-in-kindergarten-little-to-gain-and-much-to-lose/). They claim there is no research base for the importance of learning to read in kindergarten (so that its inclusion in the Common Core as a goal for K is potentially harmful).   

I think they are wrong about the research here, but wanted to seek out your reaction. Does research suggest that learning to read, especially as indicated in the Common Core, is associated with long-term positive or negative effects? 

Great question. This is one that I’ve been thinking about since I was 5-years-old (no, really). My mom asked my kindergarten teacher if she should do anything with me to help and the teacher discouraged any efforts in that regard. At the time, the “experts” believed that any early academic learning was damaging to children—to their academic futures and to their psyches.

When I became a first-grade teacher, we were still holding back on such teaching, at least during the first-semester of grade one. We didn't want to cause the mental disabilities, academic failure, and vision problems predicted by the anti-teaching types. 

These days we are doing a great job of protecting poverty children and minority children from this kind of damage. Of course, many of us middle-class white parents are risking our own kids. It is not uncommon these days for suburban kids to enter first-grade, and even kindergarten, knowing how to read. As I’ve written before, I taught both of my kids to read before they entered school.

There are not now, and there never have been data showing any damage to kids from early language or literacy learning—despite the overheated claims of the G. Stanley Halls, Arnold Gessells, Hans Furths and David Elkinds (and many others).

Let me first admit that if you seek studies that randomly assign kids either to kindergarten literacy instruction and no kindergarten literacy instruction and then follow those kids through high school or something… there are no such studies and I very much doubt that there will be. Given how strong the evidence is on the immediate benefits of early literacy instruction I don’t think a scholar could get ethics board approval to conduct such a study.

That it wouldn’t be ethical to withhold such teaching for research purposes should give pause. If it isn’t ethical to do it for research, should it be ethical to do so for philosophical reasons? Yikes.

What we do have is a lot of data showing that literacy instruction improves the literacy skills of the kids who receive that instruction in preschool and kindergarten, and another body of research showing that early literacy skills predict later reading and academic achievement (and, of course, there is another literature showing the connections between academic success and later economic success). There are studies showing that the most literate kids are the ones who are emotionally strongest and there is even research on Head Start programs showing that as we have improved the early literacy skills in those programs, emotional abilities have improved as well.

And, as for the claim that early teaching makes no difference, I wonder why our fourth-graders are performing at the highest levels ever according to NAEP?

The studies showing the immediate benefits to literacy and language functioning from kindergarten instruction are summarized in the National Early Literacy Panel Report which is available on line.

And here are some of studies showing the long-term benefits of early literacy achvievement:

Early reading performance is predictive of later school success (Cunningham & Stanovich, 1997; Duncan, Dowsett, Claessens, Magnuson, et al., 2007; Juel, 1988; Snow, Tabors, & Dickinson, 2001; Smart, Prior, Sansor, & Oberkind, 2005). This means that young children’s reading performances tend to be pretty stable: kindergarten literacy development is predictive of 1stgrade performance; 1st grade predicts achievement in various upper grades and the performance at each of these levels is predictive of later levels.

If a youngster is behind in reading in grade 3, then he/she would likely still be behind in high school, which can have a serious and deleterious impact on content learning (science, history, literature, math), high school graduation rates, and economic viability (the students’ college and career readiness). 

The research seems clear to me: teach kids reading early and then build on those early reading skills as they progress through school. Don’t expect early skills alone to transfer to higher later skills; you have to teach students more literacy as they move up the grades (something that has not always happened).

Cunningham, A. E., & Stanovich, K. E., (1997). Early reading acquisition and the relation to reading experience and ability ten years later. Developmental Psychology, 33, 934-945.
Duncan, G. J., Dowsett, C. J., Claessens, A., Magnuson, K., Huston, A. C., et al. (2007). School readiness and later achievement. Developmental Psychology, 43, 1428-1446.
Juel, C. (1988). Learning to read and write: A longitudinal study of 54 children from first through fourth grades. Journal of Educational Psychology, 81, 437-447.
Smart, D., Prior, M., Sansor, A., & Oberkind, F. (2005). Children with reading difficulties: A six year follow-up from early primary to secondary school. Australia Journal of Learning Difficulties, 10, 63-75.

Snow, C. E., Tabors, P. O., & Dickinson, D. K. (2001). Language development in the preschool years. In D. K. Dickinson & P. O. Tabors (Eds.), Beginning literacy with language: Young children learning at home and school (pp. 1–26). Baltimore: Paul H. Brookes. (preschool literacy and language predicts 7th grade performance)

Sunday, January 11, 2015

Close Reading: A Video Replay

Last week, I provided a link to a video that a reader sent me Close Reading Video . The link purported to present a model “close reading” lesson.

Although, there was much to like about the lesson, I complained that it wasn't close reading. Close reading is not a synonym for reading comprehension (or even "really good reading comprehension"). 

This is happening a lot. A company says their anthologies include “complex text,” but it isn’t clear what teachers are supposed to do with it, or why it's there at all since the instructional procedures still seem to favor the idea of protecting kids from complex text.

Last week I dinged that video for claiming that close reading is a teaching technique (it's an approach to reading). I was critical of the idea that close reading helps students “conquer complex text,” if that includes language complexity as measured by Lexiles. I didn’t like the idea of reading the book to the kids; I’m a fan of reading texts to kids (see recent NewYork Times article on this), but not the texts the kids are supposed to be reading. Finally, I didn’t like how rereading was being approached. 

Here is the rest of my thinking about this lesson. Hope it’s useful to you.

1.   Confusion of story and exposition.
A big issue with the standards is the shift to informational text. Unfortunately, teachers lack experience teaching informational text, and they haven’t developed a language for it yet. In the video the teacher repeatedly refers to the “story” that the students are reading. Better choices: “informational text,” “book,” “article,” “science selection,” and so on. 

Our language cues kids as to which strategies to use and what text features to rely on. Stories have different characteristics than science articles do. They are organized differently and use language in different ways.

1    2.     The terrific teaching strategies are irrelevant to close reading.
Many teachers who watch the video are going to be impressed with the clever way the teacher had kids sharing information (the back-to-back arrangement, the whip around). Those are clever techniques and I’m all for them. They're the kind of thing that allows effective teachers to reap the benefits of small group instruction even when teaching a whole class. As a teacher educator, I’d be very pleased if my students walked away from this viewing with those techniques.

However, those techniques have nothing to do with close reading. A lesson will involve students in close reading whether or not those techniques are used. (That's why this can be a "good lesson"--because of the high engagement level of the students--but a poor lesson, if the goal was to engage them in close reading.  

2    3.     Close reading focuses on the text, not the reading strategies.
A major purpose of close reading was to shift readers' attention from authors’ biographies, the historical period from which the text emerged, or from past critical response. It aimed to shift this attention to the text itself.  
          
One of the biggest problems with the presentation is its heavy emphasis on main idea and key detail detection, annotation techniques, rereading procedures. What the author had to say and how the author said it is getting lost here. That’s why I see this lesson as no different from what was common in schools in the 1960s, 70s, 80s, 90s, and the Oughts. This isn’t an advance; it is just a new set of labels for what we were doing before.

I do believe that, as teachers, we need to teach the reading process to kids, and having some lessons that focus on how to summarize or question a text makes great sense. Similarly, I’m all for explicitly teaching kids some of the common ways that texts are organized and to have them practice reading texts to use those strategies or to figure out a text’s structure. But, as useful as such lessons can be, they are different than the lessons in which the emphasis should be entirely upon the content and approach of a particular text.

One can’t really tell from the video when certain things happened (is this what the teacher started with or did she tell the kids this after they had read the text once or twice?). One example is purpose. She stresses that the purpose is to get the main idea and details and then tells students to look for the main ideas (she even helps this along by asking them what they know about adaptation). The problem is that her purposes are more about the reading process than the text. 
            
A model lesson on close reading should stress the text, not the reading strategies. And, it should focus attention on not just what the text said, but how the author expressed, reinforced, or extended the meaning through his/her choices of language and structure. This lesson ignored tone, the role of illustrations, why the author chose particular words, or why information was sequenced in particular ways. Kids will likely come away with some of the facts (and that is good), but there is more to it.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

A Close Read of a Close Reading Video

            My daughters are Erin and Meagan. When they were little, Meagan would get upset because we always “ran Erins,” but never “ran Meagans.”

            That’s cute when a little one doesn’t know the meaning of a word. But such miscommunication can be a real problem in Common Core State Standards implementation.

            It’s getting so that I hate to hear the term “close reading” because it is misused so often these days. 

            A comment from a reader of last week’s blog entry challenged me to evaluate an online video of a close reading lesson. I gave it a quick review and replied. 

            It’s been bugging me ever since, and I decided to give this 8-minute video a close read of my own. I’m going to be pretty critical, but please don’t take that as an attack on this teacher (these video minutes are all I know or her). She looks to be pretty good teacher. But the close reading espoused here is not especially well connected to the concepts of close reading or Common Core. 

            Because of length of my critique, I'll spread the analysis over two blog entries. Here's the first:

1          1.     The video says close reading is an “instructional strategy.”
It is not. More properly, it is a way of reading text. Viewers should not watch this with the idea that this is how you teach close reading. There are some great teaching techniques here, but a teacher who followed these steps scrupulously would not be teaching kids to be close readers.   

2.  The video indicates close reading helps students “conquer complex text.”
That’s sort of true, but not as demonstrated in this video. Texts are complex in multiple ways, and all approaches to reading can be expected to address some of that complexity. For example, I don’t know of any reading approach that doesn’t require readers to come away with a text’s main points and key details. All past reading standards in the U.S. trumpeted those particular skills already, so a shift to close reading would change nothing in that regard.   No wonder some teachers tell me that they have always taught “close reading.”
The teacher in the video is correct that close reading is useful for dealing with texts that have “layers of meaning.” But she doesn’t demonstrate that in any way in the video (main ideas and key details are not layers of meaning).
In this kind of text, “layers of meaning” might require a consideration of the effects of how the text conveyed the information (how the telling extended or reinforced those main ideas and key details). For example, in his explanation of natural selection, Darwin writes: “The tail of the giraffe looks like a fly-trapper; and it seems at first incredible that this could have been adapted by successive modifications for so trifling an object as to drive away flies.” A close reader should wonder why Darwin focuses on such a “trifling object” in this magnificent argument.
But that, of course, was Darwin’s point. He wanted to show that even the tiniest organs of little apparent importance were affected by natural selection in ways that we could only guess at. Asking students what the giraffe does with its tail or toward what end the adaptation of the tail progressed are fair questions, but they aren’t close reading questions, per se because they don’t include an analysis of those rhetorical considerations.

3          3.     The teacher reads the text to the students.
If this is the “close reading instructional strategy” and its purpose is to teach students to “conquer complex text,” then reading the complex text to the students is going to be many teachers’ takeaway. And it would be a bad one. The kids need to do the reading if they are going to become better readers.
Close reading has nothing to do with whether a text is read aloud to students or whether they read it themselves. Doing the reading for kids will not make them stronger readers. The point of having kids read texts with higher Lexiles estimates is not so teachers can practice their reading skills, it is so kids can do so. I think this teacher makes a big mistake reading the text to the kids instead of giving them a chance to make sense of what it says.
This is not an issue of close reading, but of complex text. Those are two separate, but overlapping, issues in Common Core. Students need to learn to deal with text complexity, including learning to read complex language and dealing with the complex ideas. The teacher here seems to recognize that close reading won’t help the kids to read the challenging language of this text, so she does that part of the work for them (she takes challenging language out of the equation by making sure that no one actually has to deal with it). 

4          4.     Close reading requires multiple readings of a text.
This idea is correct. Going through a complex text more than once is often necessary to figure out what the text says and how it works, or to develop a deeper understanding of it. But, again, there are two ideas operating here. One of them is that reading and rereading is a kind of “try and try again” or “practice makes perfect” idea; if you didn’t get it the first time, maybe you will on a second read. Repeated reading in fluency is kind of like that: a student reads a text aloud making fewer miscues on each rereading.
That’s not a bad thing, and I have no doubt these third-graders will benefit from this kind of thorough attention to the content of this book. This teacher definitely is not just rushing through the text to get it done; it looks to me like these students will come away knowing something about adaptation and that’s a real plus.
However, the rereading that is inherent in close reading requires a bit more than that. It isn’t about doing a better job each time. It’s about doing a different one. Yes, it might take 8-year-olds two or three readings just to come to terms with what a text has to say. But that isn’t the rereading that is central to close reading.
In close reading, now that you understand what a text has to say, you can reread it to determine how it works. For example, how did the illustrations help you to understand what the author meant by adaptation? Or, why do scientists use the term “adaptation” instead of “change”?
The video shows kids rereading to figure out what the main idea and key details of the text were. That’s terrific and this teacher did that well. But that isn’t what we mean by close reading alone isn’t what is meant by close reading, and kids who can only do that with a text will not accomplish the standards.

Disclaimer: Publicly critiquing a video lesson is inherently risky. It's possible that the instructional segment is just part of a lesson, and that had the viewer seen the whole thing, the analysis would be quite different. Or, perhaps it is one lesson in a developmental sequence, and in future lessons the teacher would move the reading over to the kids, and would have them dealing with the more analytical and evaluative aspects of close reading as they read additional texts. The point of this critique is not that this is a bad teacher, or even that this is a bad lesson (neither of those conclusions are mine), but that this is not a particularly apt illustration of close reading or close reading preparation.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Why Reading Strategies Usually Don't Help the Better Readers

Last week, I explained why disciplinary reading strategies are superior to the more general strategies taught in schools. That generated a lot of surprised responses.

Some readers thought I’d mis-worded my message. Let me reiterate it here: strategies like summarization, questioning (the readers asking questions), monitoring, and visualizing don’t help average or better readers. They do help poor readers and younger readers.

I didn’t explain better readers don’t benefit, so let me do that here.

Readers read strategically only when they have difficulty making sense of a text.
Recently, I was took a second shot at reading the novel, Gilead. I tried to read it a few months ago, but couldn’t follow the plot. I often read just before sleep and especially subtle or deep texts are not usually best read a few pages at a time like that.

In the meantime, Cyndie read it with great enjoyment, so now my self-image as a sophisticated reader was on the line. For my second reading, I carved out bigger chunks of time, and marked the text up quite a bit (even writing a summaries of the first several chapters). This time, I read with great understanding. Whew!

If the book had been easy for me, I never would have gone to that kind of trouble.

Let’s face it: school texts are not particularly hard for average readers and above. We teach strategies to them, but they don’t really need them—at least not with the texts we use to teach reading.

It may not even matter much if a student understands a text. Students can often hide out, letting the others answer the hard questions, and gaining sufficient info from the discussions and illustrations. No need for strategies under such circumstances.

The new emphasis on teaching students with more challenging texts—texts not as likely to be understood from reading alone—should increase the value of general reading strategies.

Of course, even good readers sometimes confront challenging texts at school (like ninth grade biology textbooks). Unfortunately, they often don’t use reading strategies even with such texts.

My guess as to what is going on is two-fold: students who usually get by on the basis of language proficiency alone, have no idea what to do when confronted with such demands. They go into default mode, not using the strategies at all—even though in this context such strategies would probably be helpful.

But let’s face it. Too often, meaning just doesn’t matter at school. Students can often get by with a superficial purchase on the content. I once got half credit on an astronomy exam question that asked how to measure the distance to the Northern Lights (my answer: use the same method that you’d use to measure the distance to the moon—a correct answer, and yet one that doesn’t require any grasp of the content).

Superficial understanding is often enough in school. Low readers may not be able to gain this successfully by applying their language skills alone, so strategies increase their chances. Good readers can, but when the stakes are raised they don’t necessarily adjust and start using the general reading strategies. But no matter how challenging the texts are, if “acceptable levels” of performance are low enough, strategies again won’t be necessary.

Yes, we should teach reading comprehension strategies, even to good readers. But we should do so in an environment that emphasizes the value of knowledge and understanding, and that requires students to confront genuine intellectual challenges. Those disciplinary literacy strategies touted in my last entry seem to have motivation built in: trying to connect the graphics and the prose in science to figure out how a process works; or judging the veracity of multiple documents in history; or determining which protagonist an author is most sympathetic to in literature tend to be more purposeful and intellectually engaging than turning headers into questions or summarizing the author’s message.