School & District Management

Adolescent Literacy Report Has Implications for Standards, Assessments

By Catherine Gewertz — September 16, 2009 2 min read
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Yesterday’s release of a capstone report by the Carnegie Corporation of New York’s Council on Advancing Adolescent Literacy covered some interesting ground and issued some pretty strong calls to education and policy people at all levels to make the topic a high priority. (The report’s use of terms like “re-engineer” and “revolution” got our attention.)

One of the interesting things that took shape at a panel discussion of the report yesterday was the potential intersection of the adolescent literacy work with the move to design common standards and better assessments. (The council urged policy folks to endorse common standards that infuse literacy skills into adolescents’ coursework, and to back better literacy assessments.)

David Coleman, an all-around heavyweight education policy wonk and consultant who is helping shape the standards, said any new common standards must recognize and remedy the disconnect between the literacy skills high schools often demand of students (writing narratives or shaping essays based on their opinions) and those that colleges and workplaces most often demand (writing well-constructed arguments). What will be crucial in developing sound middle- and high school-level standards, Coleman said, is to infuse the development of good persuasive writing skills across all subjects in the curriculum.

(On that note, take a look at a very good new story by my colleague Debbie Viadero, who examines the new attention being paid to students’ argumentation skills.)

Coleman also made an important point about the way assessments hamper good literacy instruction. Most break students’ reading and writing skills down into artificial subcategories that don’t reflect the way their skills develop or how one skill relates to another. Misleading as they are, the results of those assessments still guide (or misguide) the way teachers diagnose students’ literacy needs and target instruction. The prescription for literacy assessments? Gotta have far better ones if we’re going to teach literacy more intelligently, at all grade levels.

Carol Lee, an education professor at Northwestern University, made a related point. Virtually no assessments gauge which subject areas are giving students difficulty. This goes with the point the panelists hit again and again yesterday: You can’t just teach adolescents reading and writing in English. The biology teacher must have skills to help students master the specific language and content of science, and those are not necessarily the same skills the history teacher needs to help students decode and deconstruct complex original source documents. And that was Lee’s point: If you are going to try to figure out what difficulties middle and high school students are having in reading, you’re going to need to know what type of reading is proving difficult.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the High School Connections blog.