Friday, August 9, 2013

The word 'metacognitive' is usually a bad sign

Lucy Calkins of the Reading and Writing Project at Teachers College has an article on something I should probably be paying more attention to.
In April, hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3-8 in New York State took Pearson’s version of the totally new Common Core aligned literacy exams. The students’ scores on those tests have yet to come out, but the New York State Department and Pearson’s scores have been accumulating as well, and accounts of how well they’ve done on this test are not good. Each week, another journalist produces a blog or a column that begins, “I recently obtained a bootlegged copy of the New York State English Language Arts (ELA) exam…” and then the article proceeds to critique the exam. One recent journalist, for example, wrote, “I received full copies of each of the sixth, seventh and eighth grade tests…” before going on to ponder the implications of this iteration of the test ( More than a month ago. The Post distributed copies and quoted excerpts of the 5th grade exam.

Ironically, it feels as if the only people who are studying the test and writing their responses to it are teachers and principals. Because this is a closed test, educators risk losing their jobs if they obtain and speak out about boot-legged copy of standardized tests. Still, it is possible for the world to hear the observations and concerns that educators have about the test. The day after the ELA, the organization I lead – the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project – opened a site ( on which educators could post observations made during the test, and thoughts and concerns about the test. More than a thousand responses have been entered onto that site, and altogether, the responses show that teachers, principals and superintendents from both high achieving and high need schools have deep concerns about New York State’s test. gives a window into what educators are concerned about in regard to these tests. Now the question is – is anyone listening?


It is entirely likely that this test will be influential (even controlling) in decisions about how reading and writing are taught. It is especially likely that the exams will become curriculum in any state or city in which standardized tests have become deciding factors in whether teachers are hired or fired. In NYC, the scores that students receive on Pearson’s tests determine whether students have access to selective middle schools and secondary schools, allowing the tests to take on inordinate importance. On top of that, in NYC, teachers are ranked by name in newspapers based upon the scores their students receive, and this, again, means that the tests become an all-important measuring stick.

In the online posts at, you’ll find a few issues that are raised again and again. One of these addresses the interpretation Pearson makes of close reading of nonfiction. For most teachers, the goal of teaching kids to read nonfiction successfully is to teach in such a way that students can learn from the nonfiction they read. That is, if they read an article on the Pony Express, the goal is that they learn quite a bit about that topic. If you look at the Common Core standards themselves, this reading work would encompass standards 1-3, which asks students to determine central ideas and supporting details, and analyze their development in the text, as well as standards 7-9, which asks students to synthesize and integrate, compare and contrast, and weigh and evaluate, ideas suggested by texts on the same subject.

Yet the Pearson exam seems to have asked few or no questions that addressed standards 7-9, as they chose to present students only with isolated texts rather than text sets, and many questions on standards 4-6, that ask students to analyze the craft and structure of texts. “Which term best describes the structure used in paragraphs 4-6?” “Why did the author include the image of….in line 12 of paragraph 5?” This sort of highly metacognitive, analytical reading-writing connection work is not usually the primary reading lens of nonfiction readers. Teachers are getting the message that their instruction should no longer channel students to read lots of nonfiction in order to expand their knowledge and grow ideas about a topic. Teachers are gathering that what counts to Pearson and New York State is that even children as young as nine year olds read nonfiction texts in order to analyze the author’s craft. This work has been propagated through the Publishers Criterion, a document offered by two authors of the Common Core, after the CCSS was ratified. As one poster, Sandra Wilde wrote, “ the items are constructed in a very narrow way, not from the standards themselves but from a narrow set of ideas - based on the Publisher's Guidelines”
I wish I had time to spend on this issue. It's too complex to discuss without doing your homework (which I haven't done), but I do have a few brief observations:

1. The reform movement has always been based on an odd alliance of that saw a chance to advance their generally well intended but otherwise disparate goals. One of these groups is theorists who wanted to try different pedagogical approaches and were running into resistance from the teaching establishment.

2. Though reform is often presented as a return to common sense basics, some of these pedagogical approaches, particularly those involving reading and writing, seem quite arcane. From first and second grade, a great deal of time is spent on fairly obscure concepts like the distinction between perspective and point of view.

3. If the tests we use to evaluate students, schools and teachers incorporate these ideas, then these approaches will become the standard.


4. While I don't want to dismissive of these approaches, I have a very different view. Kids are amazingly intelligent and inquisitive. If you give them the ability to read with little effort and good comprehension and you get them to read widely and deeply and to write clearly and thoughtfully, they will teach themselves better than you ever could.

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