When thinking about sound literacy instruction and the daily challenges that we face as educators, I cannot help but consider the significant divide that exists between what research tells us is developmentally appropriate for children versus what the state of New York (and many other states across the country) is telling us our children need to do to be considered college and career ready.
Currently, our school is in the first year of fully implementing the Common Core State Standards in both English Language Arts and Mathematics. In a few short weeks our children, in grades 3 through 5, will be sitting through state testing that claim to be assessing their understandings and knowledge. The state tests, which are being called the Common Core State Assessments, will last a total of six days – three days for ELA and three days for Mathematics – and will consume about nine hours of instructional time over a two week period. Although many of us devote a lot of time in our schools promoting sound literacy instruction, these state tests, and their direct connection to teacher and principal evaluations in New York State, are affecting daily instruction and the quality of learning in most buildings.
Over the last few years our school has adopted a Balanced Literacy instructional approach that is rooted in both the reading and writing workshop models. We have provided the teachers and students with various resources including a range of books for each classroom library, instructional materials to guide daily instruction and professional development to expose the staff to varied techniques and approaches, which has mostly been provided by our amazing Literacy Coach. There were some challenges in the first couple of years of implementation but today our incredible teachers comfortably employ literacy instructional techniques that are rooted in the gradual release of responsibility philosophy, which emphasizes the importance of teachers gradually releasing the responsibility of learning from themselves to the students. Our teachers are extremely comfortable implementing strategy/skill driven mini-lessons, working one-on-one with children within a conference to personalize learning and working with small groups to differentiate instruction and to support and scaffold the students in their literacy experiences. With that being said, this is not a promo for Balanced Literacy because I know there are many other sound literacy instructional resources and techniques being used that garner similar results that emphasize the development of each child as a reader and writer.
Although it is our firm belief that sound literacy instruction trumps test prep any day, we are all starting to feel the pressure to have our children perform and are questioning whether we are doing enough to prepare our children for the high stakes tests. Do we believe in what we are doing in terms of literacy instruction? Yes! Do we see the value in strategy/skill-based instruction that is child-centered and student driven? Yes! Do our children see themselves as skilled readers and published authors as a result of the workshop models? Yes! Will that ensure that our children will be able to demonstrate their understandings by answering dozens of multiple-choice questions on high stake tests? Not sure! Hence, the dilemma - we think we know what good instruction looks like but we also feel compelled to give our students a fair chance to perform well on these so-called "assessments."
As Linda Darling-Hammond (2010) points out, places, like New York State, where low-quality tests have driven a narrow curriculum disconnected from the higher-order skills needed in today’s world, educational quality has languished! Although this hasn't taken root in our building, I am fearful that many schools are moving in that direction. In the last few weeks, I have heard from several colleagues and fellow educators about instructional time being devoted to work that looks just like the test items. As frustrating and disappointing as it is to hear about this work, I know that so much is riding on these test scores that none of us would ever want to do a disservice to our children, staff or community. Standardized test scores are now connected to the end of the year evaluations for all teachers and principals; these same test scores will dictate whether or not a student will receive certain support services the following year; and in a district like mine, which is known for its exceptional performance on these standardized tests, these same test scores directly affect the real estate value for the entire community.
And thus, the vicious cycle of high stakes testing, and its many effects, continues to spiral out of control in New York State (and from what I hear, in many other states across the country). The high stakes tests are affecting everyone but most importantly, they are affecting the quality of education our children are receiving. Richard Allington (2010) shared that there were some states in our country that did not administer high stakes testing and all were above the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) average; whereas a state like New York, who relies heavily on these high stake tests, is consistently below the NAEP average. Why then do we continue to give these tests if they aren’t proven to work and they do not affect student learning in a positive way? Our children are supposedly weak readers and writers compared to students in many other countries and these high stakes tests, in conjunction with the Common Core State Standards, are supposedly going to fix this problem. Unfortunately, there has been no educational research that I have encountered that speaks to the validity in this thinking and so, I will continue to fight for sound literacy instruction in our building that produces critical thinkers who are avid readers and published authors, not just capable test takers.
I hope you will all join me in this fight because our children need us to advocate for them now more than ever!