Monday, January 10, 2011

Is the Iowa Core Rigorous?

If you read my last blog post on "Iowa Core Foundations are What Matter," you will know that I am a big fan of developing common definitions/understandings about key concepts and terms we throw around in education. I had a very interesting exchange on Twitter about what the word "higher" means. I'm starting to think that Twitter is going to be my inspiration for many Heartland Alignment Services blogs.

Briefly, I responded to a statement about how "high" the "standards" of the Iowa Core were. Turns out I was somewhat misinterpreting the original poster's statement, so I'm glad he clarified for me. The tweeter did follow up with a great question:

"you ask key question about "higher". is it test scores, graduation rate, ability to think critically, problem solve, etc?"

I actually wasn't thinking about any of these when I asked him the question. Perhaps I'll spend some time on these issues at a later date. For now, I will focus on whether or not the Iowa Core is more or less "rigorous" than other similar documents around the country or world.

Let me start with my conclusion: There are no publicly available data about the Iowa Core that indicate it's "highness" or "rigor." All we have are the documents themselves and a lot of opinions. This is not enough to either endorse and condemn the Iowa Core in my opinion. So let's take a few steps back and explore this issue.

The Iowa Core describes what students are supposed to know and be able to do across the K-12 system (as well other things, but that's for another blog). These are called "standards" now for Literacy and Math since the adoption of the Common Core State Standards by the state board of education. For Science, Social Studies, and 21st Century Skills, these are called Essential Concepts/Skill Sets and Details. There are several methods of determining how "high" these statements are. And by "high," I mean challenging for students.

The method I prefer to use for determining how "high" these learning statements for students are is to determine the cognitive complexity called for by the statements. For educators, this has historically meant where do the statements fall along Bloom's Taxonomy, particularly the Cognitive dimension. This is by no means the only way to examine cognitive complexity, but it tends to be the way most educators are familiar with.

Scoping out how to determine the cognitive complexity/"rigor"/"highness" of the Iowa Core is well beyond getting into right now. What I can is this: it is possible to determine how "high" or "rigorous" the Iowa Core is. We can do so with relatively objective, evidence-based methods. These processes are not new, just underutilized. To carry on a theme of mine, making sweeping public statements about how "high" or "rigorous" things like the Iowa Core, Common Core, or anything else are does not move our work forward in the best interest of students. It is somewhat informed opinion at best, and grandstanding without merit or foundation at worst. We can do better than that. Our students deserve significantly better than that.

In the field of alignment, curriculum analysis, and policy analysis, the following are the sorts of things we should all expect if we are going to start making statements about how "high" or "rigorous" the Iowa Core is, in no particular order.

1. Content Experts: If you want someone to determine how rigorous curriculum documents or assessments are, you need people that understand the content inside and out, straight and simple. These could and should include teachers, administrators, state-level content consultants, and university personnel.

2. Standardized Procedures: The process by which content experts determine curriculum or assessment rigor needs to be standardized. That means there are directions and steps that apply to everyone involved.

3. Multiple Raters: There should be multiple sets of eyes independently reviewing and rating rigor of the curriculum documents. Depending on the nature of the work and who is doing the rating, the number of reviewers of each document should typically be between 3 and 7 people.

4. Consensus Steps: The main reason there need to be multiple raters is that it is necessary for consensus decisions to be made about the document's rigor. This helps increase the reliability and validity of the results.

5. Numerical and Visual Results: Although narrative commentary is welcomed and typically necessary, alone it is not enough. The results should be quantifiable. If they are, then they are also capable of being visually displayed. This makes interpreting and using the information significantly easier, including the use of any collected narrative data.

6. Public and Transparent: The design of the process, the participants, and the results should all be available to the public for scrutiny and discussion.

Until we have a process that includes at least the six characteristics listed above, any statements about how rigorous the Iowa Core is or is not, standing alone or compared to something else, are nothing more than shallow, unexamined statements. Let's do better than that for our teachers and students.

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