Saturday, March 3, 2012

Saturday in the Park/Supa Dupa Fly MashUp

Saturday, I've got a full day of work ahead, today and tomorrow. But don't cry for me, Argentina feel bad for me; there are plenty of compensations. (Not to hurt you, my friends who actually live in Chicago, but--the weather has been nothing short of gorgeous here. Like the Fourth of July.)

I'll be on the patio, just me and my laptop humming and the doves cooing and the dog barking and the geraniums and nasturtiums blooming. Then tonight is the Ojai Mardi Gras madness, so I may be donning a mask and frolicking cavorting celebrating in a demure and dignified manner, as befits my advanced years and station in life.

You see how it is. The weekend. However, I do have a nit to pick serious matter weighing heavily on my mind.

Today's bee in my bonnet topic has to do with the desthpicable regrettable practice of repeating ELA jargon language from ELA standards verbatim in test items. I imagine this may occur in other content areas? 

When first I saw language from targeted standards copied verbatim in such a fashion, I thought it was a nasty little anomaly: a cockroach that had somehow gotten itself mixed up with the butterflies.

What I didn't know then, having never lived in close proximity to cockroaches (but I do know now, having wandered in the desert lived in Las Vegas where their numbers are legion), is that if you see one cockroach in the light, you might do well to prepare yourself for the hundreds lurking in the nearby darkness. Scurry, scurry, scurry.

Now this desthpicable regrettable practice has become an unfortunate trend. It's ugly--there's no other word for it--at every grade level, but when done at the lower grades, it violates all reason and good sense and actually makes for a less sound assessment.

Let's shine the flashlight on this mess matter:

I'm going to write an item to target the grade 4 writing standard "Use a variety of transitional words and phrases to manage the sequence of events." Because this standard requires the application of a skill, items assessing this standard will probably have an editing passage as a stimulus.

Such a passage is accompanied by directions indicating that it is a student draft with embedded error. The number and types of error may or may not be specified. For our purpose--assessing the use of transitional words--we'll either use a bad transition and ask students to replace it or we'll leave a blank space and ask students for the best word to use:

1 We have a great dog named Sophie. 2 Sophie came to live with us four months ago. 3 We got her from a dog rescue shelter. 4 At first, she acted a little wild.  5 _____ we started taking her for walks twice a day. 6 Now she is calm and happy.
Which word or words should be used at the beginning of sentence 5?
A Besides
B Even though
C In fact

A student who knows how to use transitional words may notice that the words "at first" and "now" are chronological markers, and so will choose D, the only answer option that has to do with time. Or a student may simply select D by using the "what makes sense" rule. Either way, it's fine.

Here is a badwrongterriblenogood not so great way to go about it:

Which transitional word or words should be used at the beginning of sentence 5?
I've even seen something nasty in the woodshed horrors like this:
Which transitional device is best to use at the beginning of sentence 5 to show time order?
Now we've introduced ELA jargon, thus imposing a grade 11 word on little 4th-graders, many of whom may have the targeted skill (but we'll never give them a chance to show us because what we're doing now is like measuring height with a scale).

Whence cameth this evil? What could possibly justify this? No one writes bad items on purpose. But my colleagues and I surmise that content developers probably started copying text directly from the standards to item stems--or even were instructed to do so--because someone once gave some of the aforesaid content developers (or their supervisors) the business a hard time about the soundness of the alignment of an item.

As we've discussed previously, there's an art to alignment. Aligning requires both logic and intuition. If reviewers are moving quickly through materials, they may miss the subtleties of higher levels of interpretation: the items that are aligned by threads rather than steel girders. From a content perspective, such an alignment is no less solid; it's just less obvious.

Not to cast stones blame, but to suggest, in the spirit of helpfulness, that there is a better way.

Truly, it doesn't matter if students know the wording of the standards. (In ELA, there are a few exceptions--some writing standards require students to know parts of speech, which is all to the good in my book, and some reading standards require students to know literary terms and use such terms in their literary analyses--again, I'm good with that.) However. When asking students to show me that they know how to use transitions in a logical way, it only muddies the water to increase the reading difficulty of what is intended to be a writing skills application item.

Absolute purity of content isn't possible; like the inimitable styles of Missy Elliott and Timbaland, writing is always going to be tangled up with reading. But we don't have to build in stumbling blocks to make the questions harder.