Teaching Profession Opinion

Low-Level Assignments Are an Indictment of the System

By Robert Rothman — May 08, 2018 3 min read
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A recent report from The Education Trust provides a distressing, if unsurprising, look at mathematics education in the United States. The report is based on an analysis of 1,800 assignments given by teachers in 12 middle schools in six districts across the country. Although most of the assignments matched the content found in state standards, the analysis found, most were relatively low level. The overwhelming majority of assignments asked students to demonstrate procedural fluency; only a handful asked them to apply strategic or extended thinking.

One might quibble with the methodology of the analysis, or with whether the sample truly represents classrooms throughout the country, but the findings are similar to those of previous studies. And the results are consistent with student test results, from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA), and other tests, that show that U.S. students do relatively well in mathematics procedures but less well in understanding concepts and in applying their knowledge to solve real-world problems. How can students develop those competencies if they do not experience them in their daily classroom assignments?

The Common Core State Standards were intended to change that. The Standards state quite explicitly that students would be expected to develop procedural knowledge, conceptual understanding, andthe ability to apply knowledge to real situations. And while the political debates over the Standards were heated, some 40 states continue to use them or a variation of them.

What happened? Maybe the tests didn’t reflect what the standards suggested. Research on previous generations of standards showed that teachers tended to follow the cues from tests, rather than standards, when they diverged--an understandable reaction, given the high stakes of tests in accountability systems. And while a study by Joan Herman and the late Bob Linn showed that the cognitive demand of the tests developed by the two state consortia (PARCC and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium) was substantially higher than that of previous state tests, fewer and fewer states have been implementing those assessments. Perhaps teachers’ assignments reflect what tests expect.

Another possibility is that curriculum materials emphasize lower-level assignments, despite the standards’ expectations. Teachers might be building their assignments based on the content in the textbooks. Indeed, reviews by EdReports, an independent organization that has compared textbooks to the expectations of the Common Core, have found that many fall short in the area of “rigor and mathematical practices,” the area where higher-level assignments are likely to be found.

Tests and textbooks may have played a role, but my suspicion is that many teachers lacked a clear vision of what a high-quality assignment might be and a roadmap for how to create one. And, more importantly, many teachers lacked opportunities to learn about the implications of the standards for their instruction. As one Illinois teacher said in a focus group convened by the Center on Education Policy, teachers there were given the standards and told to “figure out how to teach them and assess them.”

Let me be clear: the findings in the Education Trust report are not an indictment of teachers. They do, however, indict the system in which teachers work in the U.S. Ideally, the adoption of the Common Core should have been an opportunity for teachers to work together and use the expertise in the profession to create lessons that developed children’s knowledge and critical-thinking competencies. In some cases, it was, but many schools lack a structure for such learning opportunities, so the implementation was uneven. For students to have opportunities to learn deeply, teachers need an opportunity to learn deeply as well.

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The opinions expressed in Learning Deeply are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.