Language Arts Standards

Some parents of my current students have shared the results of the spring 2010 Connecticut Mastery Test that they received when their children returned to school. While reviewing the scores, I noticed that although most of them did quite well in reading in general, the one area that appeared deficient was in “making connections with the text.” I pondered several explanations: The test was flawed. The students didn’t receive any instruction in making connections. The students didn’t understand the questions.
Then I began to read Diane Ravitch’s new book: The Death and Life of the Great American School System: Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education. Professor Ravitch , a former assistant secretary of education, is critical of the emphasis on testing in the public schools. Although she maintains that the education system needs to improve, she asserts that state standards tend to be nebulous and ineffective at best. For example, “Without specificity and clarity, standards are nothing more than vacuous verbiage.” The “textual connections” on the CMT’s are an illustration of such verbiage.
She elucidates her point: “State standards for the English language arts are similarly vapid. Few states refer to a single significant work of literature that students are expected to read. In most states, the English standards avoid any mention of specific works of fiction or nonfiction of specific major authors. Instead, they babble about how students “interact with text,” apply “word analysis and vocabulary skills to comprehend selections,” “related reading to prior knowledge and experience and make connections to related information . . . Students should certainly think about what they read, but they should read something worth thinking about.”
I wholeheartedly agree on this point. I have become discouraged by the paucity of “classics” assigned in schools. By the high school level, well educated students should be familiar with works by the Greek tragedians, Roman and Greek epic poetry, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Hawthorne, Melville, Faulkner, Dostoyevski, Tolstoy, and other world class authors. Instead, they are often mired in the morass of novels about teen angst and racial oppression. Why?
I will persist in assigning my students the “classics,” so they can read critically, appreciate good writing style in different formats, and respond meaningfully to universal concepts.

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