By Paul Bambrick-Santoyo 

A standard can tell you what you need to teach. Only your students’ work can tell you what they actually learned — or didn’t.

MC1403_Bambrick_70Nikki Jones’ classroom is silent except for the steady movement of pens on paper. Her 8th-grade students are hard at work on an open-ended response to a passage from Ishmael Beah’s autobiography A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.

Written from the perspective of its 15-year-old narrator, A Long Way Gone deals with the sobering topic of child warriors in Sierra Leone. The prose is steady and unflinching, each deceptively simple word reverberating with political and psychological implications. To read this text for all it’s worth, middle school students must engage their most advanced critical reading skills; when they succeed, they’re rewarded with a haunting glimpse into another world. In short, A Long Way Gone is precisely the kind of book many English teachers find rewarding to teach.

In the passage Jones’ students are reading now, the narrator describes himself and his fellow child soldiers being forced to walk over hot sand all day with no shoes:

We walked on the hot, burning sand until sunset. I have never longed for a day to conclude as I did that day . . . . I perspired, and my body shuddered from the pain. Finally, we came upon a hut that was on the sand. None of us was able to talk. We walked inside and sat down on logs around a fireplace. There were tears in my eyes, but I was unable to cry because I was too thirsty to make a sound. I looked around to see the faces of my traveling companions. They were crying as well, without a sound.

Jones’ students’ writing prompt calls attention to the many times Beah mentions that the boys are unable to speak. “How does this passage support Beah’s theme of dehumanization? Use at least two pieces of evidence to support your response.”

Jones, like many teachers right now, is in the process of aligning her instruction with the new objectives set forth by the Common Core State Standards, and she designed the writing prompt with a specific standard in mind: “Support claim(s) with logical reasoning and relevant evidence, using accurate, credible sources and demonstrating an understanding of the topic or text” (Common Core ELA-Literacy Writing Standard 8.1b).

The moment when Jones sits down to grade her students’ responses is the moment of truth: It’s when she’ll learn whether her students can use text evidence to support a claim on their own, without her prompting them.

One student wrote the following:

My second piece of evidence refers to the fact that the boys were thirsty. In the text it states, “There were tears in my eyes, but I was unable to cry because I was too thirsty to make a sound.” This evidence reveals that the mood is serious. The boys are in a serious situation, and it is hard for them to speak.

Most of us would probably agree with Jones that this response isn’t the result we strive for when we teach our students the skills described in Standard 8.1b. The student did cite evidence, but he wasn’t able to use it to support the original claim.

Another student was able to go somewhat further:

Beah writes, “They were crying as well, without a sound.” This quote exemplifies how the boys have been stripped of their emotions completely. They have been through so many things that it makes no sense to cry. They are also afraid of crying and showing emotion because they can lose something so quick. If they are emotionally attached to that thing, then they will have to go through that trauma all over again.

This second student is demonstrating a deeper understanding of the text than the first student did, and yet something is still missing. She has still not articulated how Beah’s statements about the boys being unable to cry support the theme of dehumanization (even though we want to assume that she knows how to do that, she hasn’t done so in her writing).

Teaching and learning

Reading through these essays has revealed something to Jones that Standard 8.1b on its own never could have: Her students’ gap would not be in citing credible, relevant evidence but in being able to connect the evidence explicitly with the argument. Jones’ students need more instruction on how to bridge that gap, but Jones had no way of knowing that until she saw their writing — or, in other words, until she assessed their learning. A standard can tell you what you need to teach. Only your students’ work can tell you what they actually learned — or didn’t.

How to assess student learning has always been a delicate question, and the current debate about how to implement the Common Core has made it even more so. Parents and educators alike worry that too much testing will weaken instruction or exhaust students, and their concerns are heightened now that the standards they’re trying to meet are higher than ever before.

Lost in this debate, however, is the joy of watching new worlds open to our students when they have the skills to complete difficult reading tasks. In truth, what the high standards of the Common Core give us is a rare opportunity to make complex texts like A Long Way Gone more accessible to more students. As Jones’ story shows, we can only reap those rewards if we can assess whether students have really reached those standards.

Let’s consider what characterized Jones’ approach to assessment and the Common Core:

Writing about reading opens doors to both deeper reading comprehension and a joy for reading. Some critics of the Common Core worry that orienting our standards around college- and career-readiness doesn’t leave enough room for the intrinsically priceless learning-for-learning’s-sake that we value in education. But in the classroom we just observed, quite the opposite occurred. At the moment Jones’ students were being assessed, they were engaging in the exact type of independent critical work we all hope students will have the tools to harness. This assessment showed college- and career-readiness being defined by students’ ability to do precisely that complex thinking and communicating that characterize learning at its most joyful.

Quality assessments serve as a driver, not a judge, of great reading. The results Jones saw when she read her students’ writing will determine the content of her next lessons. She didn’t just stamp a grade on each essay and move on to the next standard she has to meet this year; she used what they were telling her to figure out exactly what she needs to reteach before pushing onward. In Jones’ classroom, assessment doesn’t tell you whether students have met an objective; it tells you how they are going to. It is a roadmap for better teaching.

What we saw in Jones’ classroom was a teacher living by the mantra that the single most reliable indicator that a student has learned something is whether he or she can communicate it independently. She and the Common Core didn’t work against each other. On the contrary, they supported each other in accomplishing near-universal educational goals.

A student who can read well is a student who loves books because we tend to like what we’re good at. The debate about the Common Core sets up a false dichotomy: Either learning is fun, or learning is a world of questionable assessment and bereft of joy. In reality, learning is at its most enjoyable when it proves to you that you can do something hard. This is a lesson that has been reinforced for generations. As educators in the age of the Common Core, we can make the Common Core our enemy, or we can use it as an opportunity to open new depths of understanding for our students. They will be better served by the latter.

PAUL BAMBRICK-SANTOYO is managing director of Uncommon Schools, Newark, N.J., and author of Great Habits, Great Readers: A Practical Guide to K-4 Reading in Light of the Common Core (Jossey-Bass, 2013).

Originally published in the March 2014 Phi Delta Kappan, 95 (6), 70-71.

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