Bruno: Standards, Instructional Programs, & Field Testing
On July 12 Diane Ravitch expressed concern that the Common Core standards "are being rolled out in 45 states without a field trial anywhere." That sounded like a reasonable enough objection to me, but Kathleen Porter-Magee thinks the idea "betrays a fundamental misunderstanding" because standards "aren’t an instructional program or curriculum...They are nothing more or less than a simple list of knowledge and skills that students should learn at particular grade levels. You can’t 'field test' what a state should expect its students should learn."
Even putting aside the implausible suggestion that Ravitch doesn't understand it, the distinction between standards and instructional programs doesn't really tell us much about whether new standards should be field tested. Maybe standards shouldn't be field tested in the same way as instructional programs, but I can think of two reasons why we might want to field test them in some way.
Second, it's probably not safe to assume that the new standards are going to be perfectly clear to teachers. I am not an English or math teacher, and I'm not very familiar with their respective Common Core standards, but my experience is that many teachers will often complain that even existing standards can be somewhat vague and subject to interpretation. I'm actually a pretty big fan of California's existing science standards, but consider 8th grade standard 3.a, which requires that:
Students know the structure of an atom and know it is composed of protons, neutrons, and electrons.
What exactly does it mean to say students know "the structure of an atom"? Do they mean Thomson's "plum pudding" model? The Rutherford model? The Bohr model? Do they mean for 8th graders to be learning the more complex - but more accurate! - quantum mechanical models? Do students need to know how electrons are distributed across different orbitals, or just that they are outside of the nucleus?
Suffice it to say that despite being given a perfect score for "clarity and specificity" by Porter-Magee's own Fordham Institute, California's science standards are still in some places neither clear nor specific. In fact, Porter-Magee herself co-wrote the forward to Fordham's critique of the upcoming common science standards, which stated that the drafts as written have "left too much to curriculum developers" by being excessively vague. We cannot assume, then, that standards are necessarily "a simple list of knowledge and skills"; that depends on how well they are written.
Certainly, one way to catch these shortcomings is by releasing drafts of the standards for public comment. Isn't it reasonable to think, however, that it might also be helpful to field test the standards to see which elements teachers find difficult to interpret and work with? If anything, Fordham's previous assessments of state and Common Core standards suggest such field tests could be quite valuable. - PB (@MrPABruno) (image source)