Life of the Mind

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The Emotions at the (Common) Core

A behind-the-scenes view of setting cut scores for the NYS Common Core

by Maria Baldassarre Hopkins

This school year marks the first full year of implementation of the Common Core State Standards. These standards are intended to establish what it means to be “college and career ready,” as well as consistency in learning goals for students across the U.S. Last summer A was invited to Albany by Pearson and the New York State Education Department to take part in a five-day standard setting panel for the maiden voyage of the Common Core assessments for English/Language Arts (ELA). Panel participants were convened after students had taken the tests to determine “cut scores”—the minimum score they would need to earn in order to be considered “proficient.”

Determining cut scores was tightly constrained by a process known as “bookmarking.” The most critical part of our work was to place bookmarks in test booklets where items were ordered from easiest to most difficult. A bookmark was to be placed on the last question we believed students at a particular level of proficiency should be able to answer. Before placing bookmarks, however, we were provided with data detailing the percentage of students that answered each question correctly. We were also provided with “benchmark” data with which policy-makers believed proficiency levels should be aligned. The process left many of us feeling as though we were being intentionally biased by the data provided.

We realized that we had no voice in the decision-making process since it was the bookmark placement, not our discussions, that would determine the cut scores. Panelists raised issues with problematic aspects of the methodology while we considered the reality that setting the scores too high could actually diminish the quality of education students would experience on a daily basis. Ultimately, concerns went unaddressed since psychometricians, not policy-makers, were facilitating the process. And since we were required to sign non-disclosure agreements at the outset, our hands were tied when it came to airing our concerns afterward or bringing public attention to a process that felt like a rigged game.

An obsession with empirical data during the standard setting made it difficult to attend to the stories of real people. Educators described the tearful reactions of students when unfinished tests were taken from little hands still diligently writing. They described the frustration of students as young as eight years old forced to sit in one place for several hours at a time for several days in a row. They described the helplessness their students felt at the unprecedented difficulty of the tests. They also expressed fear at what the cut score decision would mean for the students. Would students have to give up music or art to make time for extra remediation? What would happen to motivation to learn when a student who previously did well was now labeled as a sub-standard “level 2?” What about students with disabilities and English language learners who already lacked confidence—would this be yet another blow to an already diminished sense of self-efficacy? The people I sat with during the standard setting both told and lived important stories as educators that the bookmarking process was not designed to capture. The teachers’ fears for their students were well placed, but with no “evidence” or “data” to support their claims and concerns, their voices would not be heard.

The outcome of the cut score setting was that the bar was set extraordinarily high. In line with the state education department’s expectations before we even began our work, only 31 percent of students in New York State met or exceeded proficiency for ELA and for math in grades 3-8.

Serving on the panel provided me with critical perspective on the impact of educational policy on classroom instruction, particularly in the ways that the emotions and experiences of teachers and students are obfuscated in the name of achievement and college and career readiness.

To illustrate the role that emotions play in learning, one need look no further than to the writing of literacy autobiographies that students in our program complete where they are asked to reflect on the significance of events during their lives that they believe have made them more literate people. My favorite part of this assignment is reading what future literacy specialists write about their earliest literacy experiences. Most of them write about being read to as children, while others describe memories of storytelling or the music that permeated their childhoods. Almost always, literacy during childhood is synonymous with comfort, love, bonding, and creating good stories with their families through interactions around texts. I read words like “bonding,” “security,” “excitement,” “joy,” and “quality time.” They credit these emotions associated with their learning for their future academic success.

What teachers and students are experiencing during classroom instruction today rarely resembles the affective qualities of learning my students describe. Under the Common Core, many teachers are feeling local pressure to teach to the standards with fidelity to curricular “modules.” These modules, developed by educational companies contracted by the state, attempt to cover large amounts of material in short periods of time. Some parts of the modules were only released to schools days before the school year commenced, leaving teachers with precious little time to familiarize themselves with what they were expected to teach. To make matters worse, students who are beginning the more rigorous work of the Common Core in the middle of their academic careers are often not equipped with the necessary pre-requisites needed to learn new content and skills. Teachers are decrying the loss of the “teachable moment” where they veer slightly off-course to share a personal story to contextualize instruction or simply to build relationships with their students. They cannot afford to be seen as wasting a moment of instructional time on what can be perceived as frivolity.

But they also can’t afford to lose these moments. Our graduate students epitomize what it means to be college and career ready. And they got their start on steady diets of literacy through relationship-building. To be sure, not all school children benefit from the same kinds of language-rich home environments that imbue them with a love for the kind of learning that happens in schools. For this reason, it is even more critical that public schools remain as spaces where stories are shared and relationships are built around the curriculum.

Sadly, schools are being limited by fear catalyzed at the nexus of the standards and new teacher and principal evaluation protocols. These evaluations tie educator performance to students’ scores on standardized assessments. Curriculum writers emphasize their intentions to offer materials that teachers can take, toss, or modify at their discretion. However, the sudden shift to the Common Core has left schools feeling lost at sea with curriculum modules as their only floatation device.

It is a sad day when the emotion most clearly perceived coming out of classrooms is fear. Joy, excitement, and security are associated with some of the most important learning experiences of successful college graduates. I emphasize with my students that we have a lot to gain from rigorous standards that hold students to high expectations, but we also have a lot to lose if standards are allowed to sterilize and depersonalize the artful and affective nature of good teaching. For John Steinbeck, teaching represented “the greatest of the arts since the medium is the human mind and spirit.” As with any art, teaching is powerful when it is replete with a passion that both reflects and engenders the kinds of emotional responses that simply cannot be standardized.

Maria Baldassarre Hopkins, Ph.D., is assistant professor of language, literacy, and technology in Nazareth's education department.