Many English teachers are getting worried that the combination of standardized testing and the new Common Core standards will lead to the disappearance of fiction in schools.
An excellent op-ed piece today in The New York Times makes this claim well. Teacher Claire Needell Hollander, in “Teach the Books, Touch the Heart,” believes in teaching classics like Of Mice and Men and Macbeth to her New York City middle schoolers. But ever since her school’s reading scores dropped, Ms. Hollander has felt pressured to devote more time to test preparation.
Even though her students reported feeling more equipped to handle high school English courses, Hollander has mostly scrapped her program, which now allows only the proficient readers to participate.
That’s right: Good readers get The Catcher in the Rye, while the struggling readers get disjointed test passages.
This dynamic — created by testing culture and data-driven decision making — promotes tracking and inequitable outcomes. Hollander writes:
The problem is that low-income students, who begin school with a less-developed vocabulary and are less able to comprehend complex sentences than their more privileged peers, are also less likely to read at home. Many will read only during class time, with a teacher supporting their effort. But those are the same students who are more likely to lose out on literary reading in class in favor of extra test prep. By “using data to inform instruction,” as the Department of Education insists we do, we are sorting lower-achieving students into classes that provide less cultural capital than their already more successful peers receive in their more literary classes and depriving students who viscerally understand the violence and despair in Steinbeck’s novels of the opportunity to read them.
Hollander is correct that less-privileged students read less at home, so it’s sad that many schools have thrown out independent reading and full-length novels and substituted test preparation.
And I worry that the Common Core standards, which go into effect in 2014, may continue this trend. Although the Common Core purports to encourage more critical thinking and rigorous reading, its emphasis on non-fiction over fiction may eradicate the teaching of novels entirely.
We’re already seeing this pattern in the California State University’s push to change the English 12 class to one called “Expository Reading and Writing.” The university system, concerned that students are not prepared for high-level college work, has encouraged high schools to modify their curriculum. The proposal is to organize the course around several non-fiction pieces and to teach just portions of two novels, one per semester. (I’m going to a training in June.)
I’m not (yet) a detractor of the Common Core standards, and I don’t think all testing is evil. I also think that some English teachers have focused too much on fiction.
But I worry about this trend toward testing and away from fiction. It tells students that the only things worth reading are cut-up, disconnected passages with questions at the end. It makes me sad — and angry.
What do you think?