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Dr. Ed Vavra's KISS Approach to Teaching Sentence Structure
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6/23/12
# 12 - The KISS Approach to 
Standards and Assessment
 
     Both the individual state and the "Common Core" standards are highly debated, and I must begin by admitting that I do not have the time to keep up with the voluminous writing about them. A major part of the problem, however, is that most of the debate involves an "either/or," "for" or "against," polemical stances. My objective here is to suggest a simpler, less controversial, middle way.

     The arguments for "standards" are understandable. Politicians want to show the public that the money that states, etc. invest in education is well-spent. Unfortunately, politicians are probably the last people who should be in charge of developing standards. Thus far, the various state and "Common Core" standards are "illiterate." "Illiterate," according to Merriam-Webster, means "showing or marked by a lack of acquaintance with the fundamentals of a particular field of knowledge." Indeed, the writers of most of these "standards" don't even understand the difference between "standards" and "objectives."
     You can check this out by looking at the standards of individual states or the "Common Core." You will find no specific correlation between what is to be taught and what is to be tested. As the Common Core "FAQ" page notes, there are currently no common assessments:

Will common assessments be developed?
Like adoption of common core standards, it will be up to the states: some states plan to come together voluntarily to develop a common assessment system, based on the common core state standards. A state-led consortium on assessment would be grounded in the following principles: allow for comparison across students, schools, districts, states and nations; create economies of scale; provide information and support more effective teaching and learning; and prepare students for college and careers.
In most of the English speaking world, "standards" imply something that can be clearly measured. "Objectives" are much more vague. In other words, both the state and Common Core "standards" give a complexly organized set of "objectives" (the beter to confuse you, my Dear). There are, however, no agreed on assessment tests. They are like telling car manufacturers that we want cars to be safe, but that we have no effective measures for assessing safety.
     In many cases, these educational objectives are the equivalent of telling teachers that they are to teach fifth graders how to build a rocket to the moon. But there are no directions for the teachers--or students. In this situation, it is easy to see why many teachers bristle at the very idea of standards and testing. How well students do on such tests often depends more on the students' home life, natural interests, and what they had for breakfast than it does on what they were taught in the classroom. Then the teachers are blamed for students who do poorly. Unfortunately, blundering politicians and other self-serving interests proliferate ever-changing "standards" documents.
      The writers of the standards are masters of hiding their weaknesss by turning them into what appear to be strengths. In a Common Core document, under "Key Design Considerations," you will find:
A focus on results rather than means
By emphasizing required achievements, the Standards leave room for teachers,
curriculum developers, and states to determine how those goals should be
reached and what additional topics should be addressed. Thus, the Standards
do not mandate such things as a particular writing process or the full range of
metacognitive strategies that students may need to monitor and direct their
thinking and learning. Teachers are thus free to provide students with whatever
tools and knowledge their professional judgment and experience identify as
most helpful for meeting the goals set out in the Standards. (page 4)
I love this one. Translated, it means "we have no idea of how to meet these objectives, so we are leaving that problem entirely up to the teachers." Talk about passing the buck!

     The arguments against state or national standards come from two directions. For one, there have been serious arguments against various standards proposals for history and science. These usually involve questions of content, and although the questions are important, they are not my topic here. Here I am concerned primarily with language standards. Unlike standards for history or science, language standards (like standards for math) raise few, if any, questions about belief systems. Thus we need to examine the objections against standards for language--reading, writing, and, of course, grammar.
     Here, the primary objections appear to result from the illiteracy and incomprehensibility of the standards documents themselves. Many years ago, I wrote to a state Department of Education, questioning the state's standards. The response that I received was a questioning of my motives and the statement that is it not the job of state Departments of Education to tell teachers how to teach to the standards--their job is just to determine the standards. We're back to the analogy of standards for car safety, or more probably, to having teachers teach fifth grade students how to build a rocket to the moon. Is there any wonder why teachers would object to such standards, especially when teachers are evaluated on how well their students do on standardized tests?
     In essence, the "standards movements" are crippling our entire educational system. In response to my question about how "standards" are affecting teachers, I've been told some interesting things. One of them is that teachers have neither the time nor the ability to understand the standards. I had stated in my question that the typical standards are "incomprehensible," and one teacher noted that many teachers feel the same way, but don't have the nerve to say so. As to what is happening, some teachers told me that administators (or others) are interpreting the standards and then deciding how their school system should address them. In some cases, it seems, the result is that every fifth grade teacher has to use the same textbook, and that every teacher has to be on the same page on the same day. Administrators are killing education. I've even been told that in some cases, music and art teachers cannot devote their entire class periods to music and art. Instead, they have to spend time on questions that might show up on standardized tests.

     Do I really have to argue that this is all literally nonsense, a charade to deceive the public? Part of the reason for this charade may be that our educational elite does not really want accurate standards and assessment. Such standards would mean that children cannot simply be passed from grade to grade as they currently are. Why is it, for example, that we have students in eleventh grade who are reading at a sixth grade level? In some cases, it is because the sixth grade teachers, lacking clear standards, simply pass the students on in order to get rid of them. More frequently, from what I have been told, teachers have to fight like _____ against their principals to give a student an "F." I've also been told that in some school systems, students have to be passed on to the next grade if their parents insist on it!
     Note that this all goes on behind the scenes--most people are totally unaware of it. But how much thought has been given to the effects of such "social promotion" to the rest of the students? How can an eleventh (or even a seventh) grade teacher teach eleventh (or seventh) grade material to students who are reading at a sixth grade level? And remember that the teachers are under pressure to pass ALL their students. Clearly, much of the class period cannot be spent of eleventh (or seventh) grade material. Note, by the way, that college professors are now having the same problem.


A Model for Clearer, More Effective Standards

Preface

     I need to make it clear that, although I refer to grade levels in the following explanations, they are only suggestions. Before any standards are adopted, they should be put on the web for a significant period of time so that both teachers and parents should be able to discuss them. As you will see, the type of standards I'm suggesting are much simpler and much more comprehensible than anything you will find in state or Common Core standards. And "Yes," interested parents should have input.



Grammar

     Because I'm coming from KISS Grammar, I'll naturally focus on grammar in the standards. The Common Core standards, under the section "Language Standards 612," section "Conventions of Standard English" for grades 9-10, you will find (p. 54):

2. Demonstrate command of the conventions of standard English capitalization,
punctuation, and spelling when writing.
a. Use a semicolon (and perhaps a conjunctive adverb) to link two or more
closely related independent clauses.
b. Use a colon to introduce a list or quotation.
c. Spell correctly.
Much could be said about this single item--"Spell correctly"? Does this mean that before ninth grade students to not need to spell correctly. Of course it does not, but you will find this (and other items like it) repeated throughout the standards--pure fat to obscure the ignorance of the standards. (If people cannot find the problems, then they can't complain about them. But more likely, such statements are repeated over and over and over again to create pure boredom. Boredom, more than anything else, will stop people from reading and criticizing the standards. But enough about item "c." Items "a" and "be" are the really interesting ones. 
    Moving backwards, from the simplest and silliest, why does item "b" ignore the dash? Is the dash a standard for some other grade level? (No, I'm not going to take the time to find out, because if it is, separating this use of the colon and dash would still be stupid.) And why is this a standard for grades 9-10? Are sixth graders not capable of understanding this? (Actually, third and fourth graders are probably the biggest list makers.) Item 2b, in other words, does not make sense.
     If item 2b is bad, 2a if pure craziness. A search of the document reveals that this is the only place in which either "indpendent clause" or "conjunctive adverb" is mentioned. In other words, students are not expected to be able to identify either independent clauses or conjunctive adverbs, but they are expected to be able to "[d]emonstrate command" of how to use them. The standard would be just as effective if it read, "Use a semicolon (and perhaps a gimble) to link two or more closely related borogoves." And this is typical of all Common Core and state standards--students are expected to be able to "do" or "use" X; but they are expected to know almost nothing.
     Effective (and humane) educational standards should test what students know. To expect students to "do" or "use" things without knowing what they are doing is not only to treat the students like rats in a Skinner box, but also to turn education itself into "Blah, blah, blah, boring." As Howard Gardner argues in The Unschooled Mind, effective, interesting education depends on developing students' understanding.

Standards for Grammar

    Perhaps the best way to begin is to sketch a possible sequence and then explain:

Grade 3: Students will be able to identify the subjects, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, coordinating conjunctions, and prepositional phrases in sentences typically written by third graders.

Grade 4: Students will be able to identify main clauses and subordinate clauses that function as direct objects, adjectives, or adverbs in sentences typically written by fourth graders.

Grade 5: Students will be able to identify passive verbs and intelligently discuss their use. 

Grade 6: Students will be able to identigfy all the main clauses and all the subordinate clauses that function as typical nouns, adjectives or adverbs in anything that they read or write.

The first thing to note here is that these standards are cummulative -- the standards for each grade depend on the students' having mastered the standards for the preceding grade. As users of KISS Grammar know, a clause is a subject/verb pattern and all the words that modify it. In many cases, students confuse the object of a preposition with the subject of a verb. Thus students need to be able to identify prepositional phrases before we can expect them to be able to identify most subjects and verbs.
     The second important point is that these standards are easily assessed, even with the fill-in-the-oval format of standardized testing:
Which answer best identifies the verb or verbs in the following sentence?
Then he ate them up and lay under a tree.
a.) "he" and "ate"
b.) "under the tree"
c.) "ate" and "lay"
d.) "lay"
By the way, currently most high school graduates cannot identify "am," "is," "are," "was," or "were" as verbs. You can test this for yourself--ask them to identify the verbs in the sentence, "The children were playing in the streets, and the entire street was at peace." Writing teachers, of course, are still marking sentences such as "One of the boys are here" as having a subject/verb agreement error. Some teachers will send students to textbooks to study such errors, but the textbooks do not help because the students' problem is that they do not recognize these words as verbs in the first place.

     Users of KISS Grammar will realize that I have omitted some complications, but my point here is that the preceding examples are both clear and easily testable. Once teachers become involved in developing such standards, they could help decide the grade level at which the relatively few complications would be included. I have stopped here with grade six because students who can identify the main and subordinate clauses in anything they read or write have a much better conscious understanding of how sentences work than many college professors do. My point here is the nature of the standards, not a complete set of standards.
     Compare these standards with the "Spell correctly" in the Common Core. The Common Core standards give no idea of which words students are expected to spell correctly, or of which spelling errors students are expected not to make. There is a simply reason for their failure to do so--they don't know how to reach this objective. (Remember that "rocket to the moon"?) In the KISS Approach that underlies my suggestions, instruction is cummulative. In that approach, students learn to identify subjects and verbs by underlining them (once for subjects; twice for verbs). They also learn to identify prepositional phrases by placing them in parentheses. As they master this skill, it becomes automatic, and they are expected to continue such identification in all their identification exercises in later grades. 
     This means that students will repeatedly and automatically underline "it's" as a subject/verb pattern and never underline "its." The same is true for "who's" and "whose," etc. Similarly, they will be regularly identifying "of" as a preposition and "have" as a verb, "past" as an adjective or preposition and "passed" as a verb. If students were taught in this way, in the future no college instructor will be called to the President's Office, as I was, to be handed a written complaint from a student--"I should of past this course."
      Another major difference between the standards suggested here and most state standards is that for most cases the simple standards here suggested apply to both reading and writing. The states and Common Core just love to make overlapping repetitive, separate standards for "Reading," Writing," and "Language."
     One final point needs to be made about standards for grammar. As an essay on "Natural Syntactic Development" explains, grammar really needs to be taught in a more or less specific sequence and spread across many years of schooling. As a simple example here, there is sound evidence that even many high school students do not use appositives or gerundives. Trying to teach these concepts before students are naturally ready for them will probably confuse and frustrate students, especially if they students have not developed a conscious mastery of basic sentence structure. There are, of course, also questions about students' readiness for the rest of the standards discussed in this essay, but those questions should be the subject of a national discussion of the English teachers in our classrooms. My argument is simply that they are easily assessed standards that could and should be met by every high school graduate.



Writing and Thinking

Narrative Essays

The Five-Paragraph Essay

Beyond the Five-Paragraph Essay

Voice Markers

Fallacies

Controversial Issues



Literature

Critical Concepts

Approaches to Literature

Literary Movements

Appreciating Literature and the Canon



Conclusion