Sunday, February 22, 2015

ELA PARCC Represents an Old Culture of Learning

Two children sharing a draft of their work...
I. Building Possible Literary Worlds 

Years ago I was in a student in an English seminar and one of the texts we read and studied was Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum. It was equal parts ruse and mystery--alongside a deeply semiotic text.  I grasped the plot as I read, but deeper understanding of the work happened through conversation, writing, rereading with those in the seminar. Writing critically about the text in more formal ways occurred after all of these rehearsals and required many revisions.  It's one thing to understand a text after reading and another to write critically about the text. Alongside all of this, I reread large sections of text for making meaning is most often a cumulative affair.  With literature, one reads more like a seeker of truth that a detective following prescribed clues.

Towards the beginning of Foucault's Pendulum, Diotallevi is having a conversation with Belbo about meaning making while reading the Torah.  He says:
But the important thing is not the finding, it is the seeking, it is the devotion with which one spins the wheel of prayer and scripture, discovering the truth little by little. If this machine gave you the truth immediately, you would not recognize it, because your heart would not have been purified by the long quest.  (Eco, Umberto (2007-03-05). Foucault's Pendulum (p. 33). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition. )
Composing possible literary worlds is the work of literary reading--work that often isn't confined to one reader but happens in conjunction with the text, the reader and the context (where, when  how & why the reading is happening). This making of possible worlds is a type of reading that has certainly allowed me to be career-successful, flexible, and able to shift into and out of numerous work scenarios.

In thinking about the work required to compose possible word while reading, Jerome Bruner in Actual Minds, Possible Worlds, concludes:
I have tried to make the case that the function of literature as art is to open us to dilemmas, to the hypothetical, to the range of possible worlds that a text can refer to. I have used the term "to subjunctivize," to render the world less fixed, less banal, more susceptible to recreation. Literature subjunctivizes, makes strange, renders the obvious less so, the unknowable less so as well, matters of value more open to reason and intuition. Literature, in this spirit, is an instrument of freedom, lightness, imagination, and yes, reason. It is our only hope against the long gray night. (p. 159)
Reading literature opens us.  It allows us to understand, perhaps experience, a world that is less fixed, banal. It allows us to contemplate and respond to complexity and uncertainty in ourselves and in others. Maxine Greene would tell us that reading literature is a way to make ourselves  more (other)wise. We compose possible world as we read literature.  It is not what is found on page 14 that is most essential. Extraction is not a literary end game, regardless of those who would tout reading as detective work.  It is much more complex. We come to understand page 14 in conjunction to the whole of the work. Meaning is accrued not only across the text--but as we read and reread it.

The logic of narrative is different from the logic of an informational or argumentative text. Yet, how we currently measure students' reading of literary texts here in the USA is more about privileging the fixed, the banal and the quick.  It's about extracting discrete bits of information.

Let's take a moment to look at the newly released end-of-the-year (EOY) PARCC tests.

II. A Sample Grade 3 EOY from PARCC

I was thinking about reading literature as I perused the released samples for the third grade end-of-the-year (EOY) English Language Arts (ELA) PARCC.  The test requires third graders to read two texts (literary and informational) and answer 12 questions, the majority of which are paired questions. If students do not answer Part A of the question correctly, they cannot receive credit for correctly answering Part B of the question.  Keep in mind that this is the high stakes test that is supposed to measure the essential ELA learning that has happened across a year. Essential  has been determined by the folks who wrote the Common Core.  So let's take a look at one paired question from the literature test and one paired from the informational text.  Both are said to measure the first reading standard: Ask and answer questions to demonstrate understanding of a text, referring explicitly to the text as the basis for the answers. 

The grade 3 EOY practice test begins with students reading a narrative text about a porcupine and answering 4 paired questions and a fifth question requiring students to manipulate text (drag and drop type question.).

Here's the first question:

Screen Shot from PARCC Grade 3 ELA EOY 

The correct answers for Part A is A (Hitting the ground would harm Pordy).
The correct answers for Part B is D and F.
The standards these questions measure are RL1, RL4, and L4.

After completing the literature test, students next read the informational text, “What is a Spacewalk?” by NASA. They answer 7 questions: 6 paired and one drag and drop type question. Now let's look at a paired question for the informational text.

Here is the section of the passage students would refer to when answering question 9.

from EOY Grade 3 test

Here is Part A and Part B questions.

The correct answers for Part A is C .
The correct answers for Part B is C and D.
The standards these questions measure are RI1, RI8 .

Extracting information happens more directly when reading informational text as the information is packaged logically and can be stripped out of the passage. I can put my finger on the exact spot to answer many of these types of questions. This is not the case when reading literature as meaning is accrued across the work, not merely across one or two paragraphs. Yet, the questions on PARCC's sample tests, regardless of text type, are largely about extracting information quickly rather than building possible reading worlds.

Now imagine that each day at school for 13 years, a la the Common Core State Standards and the various tests that accompany it,  a single type of reading is privileged.  Your child and mine are reduced to acting like detectives and extracting clues from what they read.  It is overly simple and wrong to reduce all possible reading to clue extraction. This is not only wrong, it is highly problematic.  Let's consider Bruner again. He writes:
There are two modes of cognitive functioning, two modes of thought, each providing distinctive ways of ordering experience, of constructing reality. The two (though complementary) are irreducible to one another. Efforts to reduce one mode to the other or to ignore one at the expense of the other inevitably fail to capture the rich diversity of thought. 
Each of the ways of knowing, moreover, has operating principles of its own and its own criteria of well-formedness. They differ radically in their procedures for verification. A good story and a well-formed argument are different natural kinds. Both can be used as means for convincing another. Yet what they convince of is fundamentally different: arguments convince one of their truth, stories of their lifelikeness.
The CCSS with its commitment to a single type of reading (New Criticism) and PARCC that privileges the testing of detail minutia do not allow for a rich diversity of thought.  Is this reliance on a single method going to ready your child or mine for a world that is far more complex?  For situations where others eschew the overly simplified? What exactly is produced via this singular fixation on an overly simplified sense of meaning making?

III. College & Career Ready?

So is being college and career ready about quickly extracting information regardless of the text or context?  Is that the type of learner you see as being able to do the work you currently do?  Is such practice even thoughtful, responsible, logical?  Is it representative of the challenges you face day-to-day? Is it responsive to self and other?  Is it complicated enough?  Is it an apt way to respond to the complexity with which you contend?

Only reading the landscape in order to quickly extract information is not the whole of what I do on a daily basis. Determining the best answer in a very limited field of possibles does not represent the types of thinking I am most often required to do daily. Yet we pay for high-stakes test to be administered to most students that do not resemble reality.  See if you agree with this set of truisms about work:

  1. I do not work in a silo. 
  2. I am not forced to use technologies I have never used before to complete high stakes work. 
  3. I am not limited to working only from a pre-established set of texts given to me by someone else. I can and do use multiple texts, many of which I have seen and read before.
  4. I am not separated from powerful tools while I work
  5. I am not required to be mute.
  6. I am not required to complete the work in a single sitting.
  7. I am not required to have cleared my desk of any and all beverages while I work.
  8. I am not limited as to where I work and what technologies I use. I can work in chair or on the floor with a laptop. I can work at a table with pen and paper. I can write and dictate responses. I can draw.
  9. I am not limited to using only the set of information I currently can access at that moment.
  10. I am not limited to faulty spelling because I cannot use outside resources to check how I have spelled specific words.
  11. I am not limited to first drafts only as I can leave the work I composed today and reread it later in order to revise and edit. 
  12. I am not limited to my first draft as I can send work to an editor, or more knowledgeable other, who gives me feedback that I can use.
  13. I follow passions and interests while working and am limited by constraints. These constraints can be liberating.
  14. I rely on tacit and explicit knowledge when problem solving.
  15. I do not merely answer questions others have formed.  More often I pose questions and frame problems.
Why do we continue to pay for testing that does not resemble actual realities of work? My life, like yours, is far more complicated and complex. And yet, we are paying for schools to be silos where children are considered 'ready' if they can quickly extract information regardless of text from a small field of possible answers. What next generation of standards and testing does this represent?

Should we not want more for our children? Should we not be questioning what this set of standards actually readies a body for? Should we not be questioning what these assessments actually measure?


A lifetime of reading literature with all of its uncertainties and messy complexities has allowed me to better negotiate the actual world as I am practiced at composing possible worlds.  When reading (listening) and writing, I am imaginative, not limited to following a set of clues to reach a prescribed outcome.  My work requires me to blend logic and intuition--to privilege both tacit and explicit knowledge.  Explicit knowledge is teachable and most often continues to be tested on high stakes tests. Tacit  knowledge is not teachable, although it can be learned. This requires a very different sense of school and a different set of measures than the CCSS currently purports.

In A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant ChangeDoug Thomas and John Seely Brown explain how measuring tacit knowledge represents a very new challenge for schools:

Measuring one’s level of tacit knowledge, however, is a challenge. Traditionally, every new model of learning has had to specify how much knowledge actually transfers from teacher to student—the more the better being the goal. But the transfer model simply doesn’t work for tacit knowledge. A student cannot ask his teacher to “give me your experience” or “tell me what it feels like to solve a problem” or “show me how to innovate.” We learn those things by watching, doing, experimenting, and simply absorbing knowledge from the things, events, and activities around us. 
Rather than measuring learning by having students find 'correct' answers,  what if the inverse was privileged?  Thomas and Seely Brown write:
We propose reversing the order of things. What if, for example, questions were more important than answers? What if the key to learning were not the application of techniques but their invention? What if students were asking questions about things that really mattered to them? With that shift in thinking, learning is transformed from a discrete, limited process—ask a question, find an answer—to a continuous one. Every answer serves as a starting point, not an end point. It invites us to ask more and better questions.

Imagine such a world for your child.

Imagine if the work of school was not limited to answering an authority's ready-made questions, but rather occasioned learners' question posing and problem framing? This is the depth of learning I have wanted for my son. I imagine it represents a depth you too would desire.

We cannot get to such higher learning if we continue to fund an old culture of learning. Let's not forget Diotallevi's words to Belbo: "the important thing is not the finding, it is the seeking, it is ...discovering the truth little by little. If this machine gave you the truth immediately, you would not recognize it, because your heart would not have been purified by the long quest." 

Let's not settle for the quick tour when the long quest can be had.


  1. What if questions were more important than answers? So many interesting points to ponder here, Mary Ann. I have asked continually, are we measuring what we truly value? Is this best practice for young children?

    Thank you for so thoughtfully reflecting on this topic.


    1. Thanks Cathy for taking time to read such a lengthy post. One of the reasons I loved your book, More Than Guided Reading, for so long was that you wanted more for children than a singular diet of guided reading. There's nothing wrong with guided reading, but it isn't the only method an I think you said that well. So too is this the truth with this interpretation reading being only close reading.

      As I sit here writing this your book is a few feet away. I can remember reading it when it was first published and cheering. Our compulsion to reduce reading to mere extraction of information is always a disservice.

      Mary Ann