Over at Joanne Jacobs, they’re talking about Sol Stern’s recent article on the New York City Core Knowledge Language Arts program. Regular commenter Stuart Buck, as he is wont to do, looks to turn the discussion into a referendum on what he perceives to be the anti-reform stance of Diane Ravitch and others. Stern’s piece, he writes,
“supports the idea that we need a broad curriculum, etc. On the other hand, it completely undermines their insistence that testing inevitably leads poor beleaguered educators to teach to the test, to narrow the curriculum, and even to cheat and lie out of the sheer pressure. After all, if kids can actually do BETTER on the tests with none of the latter misbehavior, then testing isn’t the horror it’s made out to be.”
Later Buck offers that it is not possible to hold these two ideas in one’s head at the same time:
1. “It’s the STAKES attached to the testing that inevitably lead educators to teach to the test, narrow the curriculum, and cheat.”
2. Broad and rich curricula like Core Knowledge would actually allow educators to IMPROVE test scores above and beyond a narrow test-prep curriculum.
True, a patient investment in knowledge and language growth will raise scores over time, but the key phrase is over time. There is no reason to expect an instant dividend from a knowledge-rich curriculum. Indeed, because reading tests are de facto tests of background knowledge, there is every reason NOT to expect the results to show for several years when the cumulative effect of broad knowledge acquisition asserts itself.
The high stakes associated with reading tests may not preclude teaching a knowledge-rich curriculum, but it arguably disincentivizes it. If you are expected to show at least one year’s growth in one year’s time (a concept I’ve never been able to wrap my mind around) you are far more likely to resort defensively to test-prep and “reading strategies” instruction rather than teach material that might not show up on a state exam this year, or ever.
The entire proposition is that knowledge and vocabulary are a “slow growing plant,” as E.D. Hirsch has said. The results show up in the long term. That’s hard to reconcile with high stakes reading tests that demand results now.