When Nothing Is New
by Carol Jago

I think I have finally figured out why California's test scores declined from 4th to 8th to 11th grade. It isnít that the longer students stay in school the dumber they get but that while test items increase in difficulty, classroom instruction often does not.

I have been puzzling over last spring's Stanford 9 results for a long time, but it wasn't until I saw a report by the Consortium on Chicago School Research that a light began to dawn. This group of researchers invite you to imagine entering a classroom and hearing the teacher begin a math lesson with "Today we are going to study parallelograms. A parallelogram is one example of a polygon with parallel sides." Without looking at the students, what grade do you guess this is? Second? Fifth? Eighth? Tenth?

If you chose any or all of the above you would be correct. In a comprehensive study of classroom instruction in the Chicago public schools, Julia Smith, BetsAnn Smith, and Anthony Bryk observed students in all of these grades presented with introductory lessons on the parallelogram. The same pattern of repeated instruction was found in language arts classrooms. One day two researchers at the same school emerged from third and eighth grade classrooms only to discover that they had both observed similar lessons on how to write a paragraph.

While recognizing that many skills need to be revisited and reinforced over time, what is troubling is the repetition of low level instruction with little to no development in terms of content or complexity. Comparing two literature lessonsñone in fifth grade on Charlotteís Web, another in tenth grade on the Rudolfo Anaya novel Bless Me, Ultimañresearchers found few differences apart from the literature itself. In both classrooms students:

I would argue that this is quite a low level of instruction even for fifth graders, but to think that 16-year-olds are still focusing on basic story elements rather than exploring the various themes within a rich piece of literature or learning how to draw inferences from the text goes a long way to explain why these students score poorly on standardized tests. They haven't had any practice with analysis. They havenít been taught how to do what the test in front of them demands.

Of course not all students are similarly shortchanged. In Chicago, researchers found that at integrated schools in middle-class neighborhoods the content of instruction, grade by grade, was for the most part consistent with the content of the test. This was not the case, however, in predominately minority and African American or high-poverty schools. In these schools, by the eight grade there was on average a 3 to 5 grade level gap between instructional content and test content. What this means is that children are being tested on skills and material they have never seen.

Whatever their ethnicity or socio-economic status, students who attend schools with a coherent curriculum aligned with state standards are much less likely to repeat the same instructional material year after year. It is one of the reasons most states' standards are delineated by grade level.

Before schools begin flunking students on the basis of standardized test scores, administrators should check up on what went on in those childrenís classrooms during the past school year. They might be surprised.

Carol Jago teaches English at Santa Monica High School and directs the California Reading and Literature Project at UCLA. She can be reached at jago@gseis.ucla.edu.