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Posts tagged ‘Common Core standards’

The New SAT Sounds a Lot Easier Than the One You Took

cbnew_blue_RGBYou might have heard that the SAT is getting redesigned again. Among other changes, the plan is to shift back to the old 1600 point scale that old farts like me took. (That’s the way it was pre-2005.) It’ll also be the first test available in both print and digital form, a change which seems almost comically overdue. These changes won’t take effect until 2016.

On top of those changes, there are a number of shifts that bring the test more closely in line with the Common Core State Standards, the guidelines that dictate what students should know by the time they’ve completed a certain grade.

Whether you love or hate the Common Core (and everyone seems to be torn between those two extremes), I think it is reasonably safe to say that the SAT of the near future will be a less stressful experience than what you and I remember. Here are a few of the changes for the easier:

1. The essay section is optional

Though it’s less than 10 years old, the essay portion of the test is going to become entirely optional. It’s likely certain colleges and programs will require it and others will not. But generally speaking, the essay will only be attempted by students who are pretty confident in their writing ability. Like when the essay section was originally introduced. I’m of two minds about this change. On the one hand, it’s too bad that learning how to write is apparently considered an “optional” skill. On the other hand, judging an essay on a fixed, standardized scale just encourages writing what the judges want to see, and that’s often not the same thing as good writing. So maybe having an essay on the SAT was always kind of a ridiculous addition.

2. No more penalties for guessing

As you no doubt remember, in an effort to discourage wild, random guessing, an incorrect answer on a multiple choice question on the SAT was actually worth negative points. I have no complaints whatsoever about the new test ditching the guess penalty; it was always a dumb rule anyway. I had a physics teacher in high school who applied the same rule to his tests. However, the point deductions were much, much larger since quizzes would typically only have 10-12 questions on them. True story, I had a friend who, because of this scoring system, once scored a -3/100.

3. Less topics covered by the math section

Rethinking the SAT as a true college preparatory test, the math section is going to cover a less extensive range of topics. The idea is to focus primarily on the ideas that will carry over into college, which won’t necessarily cover everything from high school. Goodbye geometry.

4. Less esoteric vocabulary

As an English major, this one bugs me a little. The new vocabulary list is going to do away with less commonly used words in favor of words that are more likely to be used in students’ future college and professional careers. You might lose a word like… well, like “esoteric”… in place of a word like “empirical” which is more likely to show up in a college course. No doubt this will make the vocab section easier, but what worries me is the impact this will have on etymology. While plenty of people would argue with me that it’s not important to learn the origins of words, understanding how the various roots and fragments come together to express ideas is incredibly useful to studying any language. You might never use a word like “exculpate,” but that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in knowing that “inculpable,” “culpability” and “mea culpa” are all built from the same root.

So what do you think? Is it a good thing that the test is taking actual high school and college work into deeper consideration? Or do you think the new test sounds too “dumbed down”?

 

Are Easier Graduation Requirements Dumbing Down College?

iStock_000005373213XSmallA recent article by the independent education journal The Hechinger Report discussed the troubling trend of cutting back on credits and removing core requirements by many major universities. Sometimes it’s because students graduating from those programs are “low-productive.” Sometimes it’s because politicians want to cut back on the tax dollars going to public universities. Sometimes it’s because university administrations want better graduation rates.

The trend has naturally led to some harsh words from the academics whose programs are threatened. Boston College’s Karen Arnold calls colleges of the near future “Walmarts of higher education.” Western Connecticut State University’s Steven Ward calls it “McDonaldization.” Same idea.

The main conceit of the article is that colleges and universities are trying to look for short-term fixes to increase graduation rates by decreasing the quality of education. While that’s definitely a problem, I’d argue that the real problem is with the motivation (increasing graduation rates) not with the means (removing core requirements, speeding up time until graduation, and allowing more classes to be taken online).

Maybe the problem isn’t the administrations trying to make their institution look good. Maybe it’s a deeper problem with the world having an increasingly non-sustainable idea of what college should be like. Not everybody can afford to commit four full-time years to being a student. Not everybody needs to study physics or history or art after the age of 18. Higher education isn’t, and shouldn’t be, standardized the same as K-12.

People absolutely should pursue some form of higher education, but we as a society need to accept the fact that this will (and should) look different for different people. That won’t always include a bachelor’s degree, or in some cases, any kind of degree. As we’ve pointed out on this blog before, it’s better to drop out than to never try. Maybe graduation rates just aren’t a very good indicator of the overall quality of education.

Trying to Turn English, Reading, & Literature Into a Numbers Game

readingbabyThere’s a problem that always seems to be at the root of the debate over education policy: When do we standardize and when do we personalize? If we don’t standardize enough, there’s no guarantee that everyone will receive the same opportunities and the same basic education. If we don’t personalize enough, we can ignore some really basic common sense in the interest of keeping everything “equal.” This post is about the second problem.

The institution of the Common Core Standards in most states tries to find measurable ways to ensure schools are meeting their state standards. For math, that’s not too hard. You just set the grade you should know your multiplication tables and the grade you should tackle geometry. For reading, things get trickier. That’s where the Lexile system comes into place.

The Lexile system runs the text of a book through an algorithm to assign it a difficulty level, from 0 to 2,000, based on the complexity of the individual words and overall sentence structure. The Cat in the Hat, with its deliberately limited vocabulary, is ranked 260L. The historical/ethical/literary classic Plutarch’s Lives comes in at the significantly more intimidating 1560L.

My knee-jerk reaction is that it’s an incredibly stupid system. Sentence and vocabulary complexity is in no way equal to literary complexity. Otherwise our fourth graders should all be reading For Whom the Bell Tolls and The Road, just because Hemingway and McCarthy like curt, direct language. Sure, a 9-year-old could read a William Carlos Williams poem and comprehend the words, the sentence structure, and the syntax, but no one thinks 9-year-olds should be studying early 20th century poetry.

Now before you panic enough to write an editorial about The Hunger Games outranking The Grapes of Wrath, keep in mind that the Lexile system is just one aspect of the Common Core Standards. Nobody’s taking this as a perfect indicator of the quality and complexity of writing. It’s not incredibly stupid if you just take it with a more than a few grains of salt. A football game isn’t won or lost purely based on the quarterback’s rating, right? It takes a lot of moving parts to make it all work.

But it is managing to trickle into education more and more as a subtle influencer of curriculum standards. That gets to be troublesome when you read articles like this one from The Atlantic, bemoaning the fact that teachers are refusing to assign difficult books. The measure of “difficulty” in the article? The Lexile system. While there’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to quantify language, there is something wrong with thinking that ranking equals value or even grade level.

The effort to consistently challenge students fairly across the board is a noble one. But maybe some things just can’t be quantified.

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