A while ago, my fellow Friday columnist Joylene Wagner lamented that “most of our elementary students don't receive regular musical instruction” despite evidence that show art education “can support other areas of learning” including “history, poetry and cultural literacy.”
Years of neglect of not teaching music and other arts may have a deleterious effect on student success if a sample Common Core assessment is any indication.
Part of an 11th-grade test developed by the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, whose charge it is to design tests that will reflect mastery of the new Common Core standards, asks students to write about the role of government-funded public art.
First, students have to read four sources on the topic. Then, they have to write out answers to questions about the readings (no multiple choices here). Finally, students must write an argumentative letter.
The level of vocabulary and geography needed in order to understand the reading selections on the test include words that the majority of my honors English students did not know: city council, Florence, argumentative, iconic, Vatican City, masterpieces, national identity. Even understanding the idea of “public art” proved troublesome.
Most would agree that these words and phrases are important to know and that high school students should know them. In case they don’t, then answering questions about the reading selections and writing about them would present a challenge.
Jacqueline King, spokesperson for Smarter Balanced, said that teachers will be given a 15- to 30-minute classroom activity the day before the assessment which would include definitions of specialized vocabulary, such as “muralist.”
However, students would be expected to know academic words such as “argumentative.” The teacher, unable to preview the assessment beforehand, would not be able to pull out words that her particular student population may have difficulty understanding.
Of course, if schools provided regular field trips to art museums or students studied art, in general, they would have the prerequisite knowledge that this sample test demands.
In addition to awareness about art, the other aspect to this practice assessment is that it is asking students to read multiple sources in order to derive information for writing a research paper.
Over 20 years ago, Glendale Unified had a requirement that all high school sophomores write a research paper. The assumption was that reading and writing happen in English classes, not necessarily in any other courses.
Now, with the Common Core standards and the new type of standardized testing, students will fail miserably unless they receive frequent instruction in careful reading and writing across the board, not just one hour a day in their English class.
Therefore, it is imperative that teachers of non-English courses have students practice these skills as well.
Next year, the new testing will be administered to students in third through eighth grades as well as 11th grade. This means that those 11th-graders will have had one year of Common Core standards-based instruction so no one should be surprised if the results aren’t very good.
When next year’s third-graders take the test as 11th-graders in 2023, they will have had eight additional years of such instruction, meaning that their test results would best reveal what impact the Common Core movement has had on education. If the scores of this “first class” improve from year to year, then it would validate Common Core.
It is a noble endeavor to hope that children will excel at a high level. It is ignoble to expect high results overnight.
As educators continue learning more about Common Core, patience is needed before conclusions are drawn about its legitimacy.
Here’s hoping the bureaucrats will allow a sufficiently long learning curve before declaring the failure of yet another education trend.
BRIAN CROSBY is a teacher in the Glendale Unified School District and the author of "Smart Kids, Bad Schools and The $100,000 Teacher." He can be reached at brian-crosby.com.