Monday, July 14, 2014

There is No Complex Text Without a Reader: Parsing the Common Core & Mass Testing

 I. Down the Rabbit Hole - What Is Complex Text?

In the Common Core's  40-page Appendix A, the word complex appears 153 times, the word complexity appears 109 times, and the phrase, complex text, appears 16 times. The idea of text being complex is a central tenet to the Standards and I argue here is foundational for the logic that says mass testing of every public school child in the nation every year is appropriate, doable, equitable, and necessary.  The CCSS authors assert that during the last 50 years the texts used in K-12 schooling are in decline with regard to 'complexity' and that it is necessary to read 'complex text' in order to become college and career ready. The subtext to this might well be: "Truly those managing schools cannot be trusted to get this right. Look what they've been doing for the last 50 years." They contend all of this without clearly defining the central phrase, complex text.  If it's so critical then why don't they define it clearly? Here's what they do say.

So, what exactly does the phrase, complex text, mean? What are the CCSS authors ascribing? They begin Appendix A by writing:

One of the key requirements of the Common Core State Standards for Reading is that all students must be able to comprehend texts of steadily increasing complexity as they progress through school. By the time they complete the core, students must be able to read and comprehend independently and proficiently the kinds of complex texts commonly found in college and careers... In brief, while reading demands in college, workforce training programs, and life in general have held steady or increased over the last half century, K–12 texts have actually declined in sophistication, and relatively little attention has been paid to students’ ability to read complex texts independently (p. 3).
Ok. So the writers conflate a few terms without actually defining the phrase and it is important to note that comprehending texts of steadily increasing complexity is not the same thing as complex texts.  The first references a reader--someone is comprehending while the latter does not. Saying that complex texts are like the ones adults read at college or in their careers is ambiguous.  For example, undergraduates studying with me read the opening chapter to Bakhtin's Art and Answerability. Certainly not common reading material for K-12--nor should it be.  Next is the reference to sophisticated texts.  Should we assume that these are the same thing as complex texts?  What is meant by sophisticated and by whose standard?  Why such obfuscation?

So without establishing a clear explanation of what is meant by the phrase, complex text, the focus shifts to citing a 2006 report from ACT, Inc. (Reading Between the Lines: What the ACT Reveals About College Readiness in Reading). ACT, Inc. is a nonprofit organization that generates revenue by selling tests and testing programs to students, schools, states and companies.

In the report, the authors write: 

Texts used in the ACT Reading Test reflect three degrees of complexity: uncomplicated, more challenging, and complex (p.14).
Act modifies the word complexity by stating that the texts used in their test can be arranged along a continuum.  They add (see chart below from page 14) and then follow up with an explanation:

As shown in Table 1, the three types of texts represent a continuum of increasing complexity with respect to the following six aspects (which can be abbreviated to “RSVP”):
  • Relationships (interactions among ideas or characters)
  • Richness (amount and sophistication of information conveyed through data or literary devices)
  • Structure (how the text is organized and how it progresses)
  • Style (author’s tone and use of language)
  • Vocabulary (author’s word choice)
  • Purpose (author’s intent in writing the text) (p. 15)

So how is the presentation of text analysis from ACT, Inc. different than labeling texts complex by CCSS? ACT references specific, known texts  for a specific audience: high school seniors taking the assessment. From a known field of selected test passages they sorted these into three different categories based on their RSVP method and named those categories: Uncomplicated, More Challenging, and Complex. This represents a method and establishes a context in which that method will be used. Further, there is an implied reader: the high school senior taking the test. They could and did make a case to say: Within the testing passages, these differences among the texts based on our six aspects (RSVP) could be applied and one could argue that these are examples of complex text can be seen. They also provide detailed annotation of two passages to illustrate their schema. The CCSS authors adapted the ACT work by removing the context (specific testing passages for high school seniors) and applied the result to K-12 education. 

Next the CCSS authors reference a quote from Marilyn Adams (2009) and offer it  as an explanation for what complex text (from this text). They write:

"As Adams (2009) puts it, 'There may one day be modes and methods of information delivery that are as efficient and powerful as text, but for now there is no contest. To grow, our students must read lots, and more specifically they must read lots of ‘complex’ texts—texts that offer them new language, new knowledge, and new modes of thought' (p. 182)" (p. 4).
Adams makes the connection between the reader and the text insomuch as the word, new signals a reader and a context.  Again, the idea of complexity is connected to human activity. In contrast, the CCSS authors tend to situate complex text as autonomous--something one could point to that is independent of reader or context.  Brian Street (2000) explains that the autonomous model of literacy "disguises the cultural and ideological assumptions that underpin it and that can then be presented as though they are neutral and universal"( p. 7). 

Autonomous text is situated as being ideologically-whole--something ready to be used alongside the logic of mass testing.  So if complex text exists independent of context, and being able to read such texts as measured by tests produced by PARCC, Smarter Balance, ACT, ETS, or Pearson (who know what complex text is because they say so) then validation of ELA performance becomes limited to those who sanction what's complex text and not.   The test measures the algorithm not the reader. The writers state:
Being able to read complex text independently and proficiently is essential for high achievement in college and the workplace and important in numerous life tasks (p.4).
How can we know if students can read complex text independently and proficiently?  That is left unanswered directly.  However, there's a logic here that says if schools could not select the right texts during the last 50 years--years in which the text selection got worse and worse, than can educators now be trusted to do so? Can we risk this?  How can we know children and young adults are proficient readers if this is left to local hands?  Enter mass testing at national levels. In a parent handout from NY State (EngageNY) they explain to parents when asked if the CCSS will mean more test by responding:

No. The Common Core State Standards do not mean more tests. But there will be different, and better, tests. 
If local educators cannot be trusted to select the right texts that are complex enough, can they be trusted to measure learner's reading? And so it is not surprising that alongside the CCSS, PARCC, and Smarter Balance is the rhetoric that supports the use of Automated Essay Scoring (AES) --a fancy phrase for machine-scored writing.  This too takes the measurement out of  imperfect human hands. (Note NCTE's objection here.)  Alongside the publishing of the CCSS, a joint paper by ETS, Pearson, and College Board heralding the use of AES was published.  The authors state:
One possible mechanism for scoring the CR items is with human graders. However, years of research and practical experience with human graders reveal a number of challenges. There is a substantial and expensive logistical effort in supporting human scoring through recruiting, training, monitoring, and paying human graders. The process also takes considerable time to accomplish and can make it difficult to report scores quickly. Finally, even under the best conditions, there can be limits to the objectivity and consistency of human scores, despite using multiple human graders for each response.  
Human scoring is not the only option for scoring CR items. Recent advances in artificial intelligence and computing technology, paired with research over several decades, have yielded a number of systems in which computers assign scores to CR items. Both the availability and acceptance of automated scoring systems have grown substantially in recent years, with year-over-year expansion of operational use in both high- and low-stakes assessments. 
Last, the CCSS writers situate static print as primary and privileged. They write:
"In particular, if students cannot read complex expository text to gain information, they will likely turn to text-free or text-light sources, such as video, podcasts, and tweets. These sources, while not without value, cannot capture the nuance, subtlety, depth, or breadth of ideas developed through complex text" (p. 4).
The underlying (and I would contend faulty) assumptions here are legion, but beyond the limited scope of the word, text, and the act of reading, it does offer us an understanding that the CCSS authors understand worthy-for-students-to-read-text as being static print. Further, we can see again the CCSS authors situate such worthy text as autonomous--ideologically-whole. 

I  want to contend that there are no complex texts without readers.  It is the relationships between reader and text that allows for definition of simple and complex to be applied.  In the world of text, sans reader, we'll find simple (one way through) and complicated literary works, such a hypertexts, as they offer a reader multiple pathways through.  Complexity occurs in the transactions made by a reader and a text.  

Let's delve a bit.

II. An Interlude. A Quick Experiment (for you)

Take a minute to look through these screen shots taken while I was reading Michael Joyce's Twelve Blue.  I chronicled my first opening reading moves in this hypertext novel below.

I read the word, BEGIN, and I felt a lot like Alice. I recalled a book I scribbled in as a young child and thought for a few seconds about the marks I made with crayon and then I clicked, BEGIN and tumbled into this next screen. 

I was captivated by the visual graph and then read the William Gass quote which had me thinking about what I've read by Gass. With a little help from a google search of Gass, I recall the story, "In the Heart of the Heart of the Country" and get sidetracked by a review of the book from 1968 in the NY Times. I read the review recalling the title story too. I'm not sure I read anything else. I check to see if there's a pdf of the text available and find mostly reviews and study guides. Amazon has the book and an ebook of it will be available October 7 of this year. Do I want to wait that long? Is this a book I want to hold and turn physical pages?  Hmm. I'll wait on this. Back to the story.

I'm scan the page and I'm feeling impulsive, thinking about the randomness of meaning and how things gather around lint and go with number 2, a favorite number, I think. I click on 2.

I'm immediately seduced by the opening words and pay scant attention to anything else. 

Each river flows two ways for at least an instant, whether a gasp at the source, the spring half lapsing before going on, or a watery wavering at the uncertain edge which joins her to sister or the sea. Nonetheless the long sigh of the estuary is something different, the Hudson easing swollen and recumbent upward halfway to Albany, plumping in her banks like the bluish flesh of an oyster, pregnant with pearl sheen even when no stone forms. 
Huh?  I love what I don't immediately grasp. I read on and finally latch on to a subject--a she, feeling like I'm no longer in that river moving two ways without aim.  A subject. I reread the paragraph.
Instead she gazes on the samples with a neutral eye, labwise and detached as a river in December. In the microscope there is no difference between the birth of an infant savior or the death of a crone at year's end. Life is a river that flows both ways, it doesn't do to get caught up in the threads the water weaves. So the men taught who tutored her in these alchemies. Even so she sees dreams in algae, lotus blossoms in saline solution, a sister in the oyster.
Who is she?
Why are these men who have tutored her?
What alchemies? Alchemies are more about magic and yet she sits at a microscope.  There's so much tension here (in the text and in me). I'm loving the uncertainty (well, sometimes). I'm forming tentative theories.  Okay back to reread and I tackle what I don't get:
The violet stain is like no color in nature. Alkali. Kali. Queen. 
I query Alkali. Kali. Queen and I find it is a reference is to the book The Queen's Printers' Aids to the Student of the Holy Bible and I'm piecing together that what she sees (as I now there is a she) is a violet stain on the slide that is unnatural and yet it has been taken from the river. Yes?  Here's what I find in that book on page 51:

This is unrelated but earlier this evening Rob and I mentioned Richard Powers' novel, Gain--a book we each have loved and taught.  And I'm connecting that novel to this screen and wondering about those lifeforms the girl/woman could spy on the slide.  Thinking about chemicals from factories and rivers that carry so much along its currents.

 I press on the hyperlink and am taken to this screen:

Hmm. Okay I can recall photographing shorelines of the Hudson River in summer. Up near Bear Mountain. One afternoon, I'd taken a bumpy road  on my way north to Newburgh, NY and found lots of places to stop and make images. This reminds me of what I recall seeing. I want to enlarge the image and press on it and I get taken to this screen:

I'm falling in. River. Text. Self. The language is so much more than I had imagined I would find.  It's a poem.  I say aloud:  "Yes, everything can be read." (and I say this in the voice I imagine to be like Molly Bloom's. (Think breathy for is this passage nothing less than a full declaration of living?) This is the written poem.  The image, a visual poem. There's cohesion to that I think quickly and I select a colored line to the left of the words and click it loving how the image reminds me of my mother's knitting bag and the loose yarn that collected there and I am anticipating there will be some explanation to what I've read.


III. Meaning Making is Complex, Physical Texts May be Complicated

I stop here for now I want to take a few minutes to parse together what complicated text might be. Joyce's hypertext offers us a concrete example of a complicated text as it is co-made by the reader's decisions, impulses and fancies as s/he reads.  A complicated text has multiple ways through. This is physically evident in the Joyce text. Even though there are multiple ways through the Joyce text, the pathway(s) a reader constructs can be physically traced, but the reading cannot be duplicated.

The meaning a reader composes while reading a physical text is complex.  The physical text is complicated.  These are not minor differences. If you or I were to follow the screens I read, the meaning made would be different from what happened a little while ago.  

Wolfgang Iser (1974) writes that the literary text “activates our own faculties, enabling us to recreate the world it presents. The product of this creative activity is what we might call the virtual dimension of the text, which endows it with its reality... The virtual dimension is not the text itself, nor is it the imagination of the reader: it is the coming together of text and imagination” (p. 279, emphasis mine). 

Complexity refuses to be confined to a traceable path.  It's inherently nomadic. It cannot be tested using paper and pencil or the computer version of paper and pencil. 

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