What makes one set of English language arts standards more rigorous than another set?
How can reporters or policy makers tell? What makes Tom Luna of Idaho or Kathleen Porter Magee at the Fordham Institute think Common Core’s English language arts standards are more rigorous than Idaho’s or many other states’ previous standards? We don’t know because they don’t tell us. They don’t know, either, we suspect. They simply repeat the R word like well-trained parrots.
Many researchers and state department of education staff love to do “crosswalks.” What they do is try to determine if and to what extent the statements in one set of standards are matched by the statements in another set.
Crosswalks are mostly a waste of time, however. Not only do they fail to recognize that both sets may be weak, but also such comparisons do not capture most of the features of a set of standards that determine rigor. So, how can one judge the academic rigor of a set of English language arts standards. What are some of the things to do or look for?
1. Count the number of reading and writing standards. If there are more writing standards than reading standards, then the classroom curriculum is apt to be a weak one. Why? Because writing is dependent on reading, not oral fluency. It takes a lot of good reading in and outside of school to produce good writing. That was the theoretical basis for the research on prose models. We also know from research that good writers have been good readers. And that early writers tend to be early readers.
2. Count the number of reading standards at the high school level with explicit literary, linguistic, and/or historical content, and determine whether the content at one level leads logically to content at another level. The more content standards that are there, and the more they follow a logical sequence, the more likely students will experience a strong English curriculum. Without significant knowledge standards, the English class declines into a “skills” course.
3. Follow a few strands (categories) across several successively higher grades. Do they increase in their intellectual demands in ways that are obvious or clear?
4. Do the reading standards distinguish the features of imaginative/literary texts from the features of expository/informational texts (e. g., theme for a literary work and purpose for an expository work)?
5. Are the standards expressed in unambiguous, well-written English prose?
6. Is what they ask students to be able to do sensible? Is what they ask students to be able to do realistic and age-appropriate, or do they call for research and assignments more fitted to younger or older students?
7. Are there frequent but short examples showing what a standard means in a classroom at a particular grade level and a sample text with the level of reading difficulty expected at that grade level?
8. Are the writing standards at a particular grade level coordinated with the reading standards at earlier grade levels and the same grade level so that students are being taught for at least several grades in a row how to read prose models of the kind of writing they are being asked to compose?
9. Do the standards observe disciplinary boundaries, concentrating on materials and activities that are unique to English and that other disciplines do not pursue?
As can be seen, no crosswalk captures the criteria that determine rigor and coherence in a set of ELA standards. These criteria do not rely upon comparisons. Instead, they assume certain disciplinary principles and levels of expectation.