Reports of 2014 test scores from elementary grades through high school are coming in fast now. Some are truly comical, and others border on tragic.
As reported in the Atlanta Journal-Constitution on June 13th, Georgia’s students’ performance on spring tests showed some improvement in reading, but more than ten percent at every grade level failed math. Twenty percent of fifth graders failed the math test. To put it mildly, this is cause for concern. Here’s the funny part: superintendent John Barge suggests that changing the math standards set ten years ago to the new Common Core standards together with greater depth of math instruction may explain students’ poor performance. Instruction linked to poor performance is seldom heralded. Barge bragged about improved performances in other areas, but Dana Rickman in the policy and research center said they were not statistically significant. More bad news is that the present standards/tests program called CRCT in Georgia is being phased out and replaced by a program called Georgia Milestones. It promises to continually assess students all through the school year. That is part comedy, part tragedy.
The real tragedies are individual lives caught in the testing machine like fourth grader Chrispin Alcindor, who was featured in the cover story of Sunday’s New York Times (June 15, 2014.) Chrispin’s family moved to Brooklyn to escape poverty in Haiti when he was 2 years old, one of a set of triplets. Their parents worked at menial jobs to assure the children’s health and success at school. After considerable success in kindergarten and the first three grades, Chrispin thought of himself as an extra smart student. He won a recitation contest in French, loved to write stories, and dreamed of becoming an engineer. Then in fourth grade he took the first battery of standardized tests and did poorly, his scores near the bottom in math. Suddenly, at age 9, he characterized himself as “a person who struggles with math.” He spent the next year obsessing over improvement and had help from family members and teachers. But the new emphasis of Common Core standards on critical thinking were simply beyond his reasoning capacity, and he barely passed the most recent test in math again. His dreams are gone along with his self-esteem. That is tragic.
Without a doubt, debate about Common Core standards will rage on for at least a decade, ruining dreams and discouraging children, compromising their futures. Proponents insist the new standards allow local flexibility regarding the curriculum and how it is tested, but the Common Core emphasis on critical thinking may be misplaced.
My experience with elementary children suggests that they need mountains of concrete experience before they transition into abstraction and new kinds of thinking like critical analysis. However, examples of instructional strategies described in the NY Times article suggest that concrete experiences are often provided only as remedial exercises. If a student struggles with multiplication tables, he or she might be encouraged to shade in squares on a grid to show the product. If someone has trouble with fractions, they might be given neon-colored fraction tiles to slide around for proofs of equivalence.
In a Montessori classroom, children from age 3 and on into the lower grades handle manipulative materials constantly until they arrive at abstraction through their experience.
Another Montessori reflection: children love non-fiction in the early grades because they are eager to know the whys and hows of the world around them. They usually discover the excitement of fiction somewhere between third and sixth grade, depending on their individual developmental path. The Common Core standards require 50% of classroom reading to be non-fiction—beginning in the fourth grade!
Do the people making up these standards know any children? Have they visited an elementary classroom since they left the sixth grade? Have they listened to what teachers have to say? The gap between between daily teacher-students interactions and the opinions of policymakers is very wide. The consequences are very serious.