CCSS, Eighth Graders, and the Red-cockaded Woodpecker
As we transition to the Common Core State Standards, one big change is that we will be providing students with samples of writing to compare and from which to draw a context for writing. Such is the case with the practice prompt released by the SDE for eighth grade teachers to use with their students.
The practice prompt is four pages long and contains two pieces of informational text – “Protecting the Nest,” by Ben Davis, an Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation Information Specialist, and “Red-cockaded Woodpecker,” a piece on the decline of the species, also written by the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation. The first piece invokes imagination and uses interviews to discuss efforts to assist the bird. The second provides a more strictly scientific of the bird’s habitat and decline. Following a read of these two texts, students are asked to respond to the following prompt:
Using evidence from the passages, Red-cockaded Woodpecker and Protecting the nest, explain how the Red-cockaded Woodpecker’s nesting habits have caused this bird to be placed on the endangered species list.
I have a number of serious concerns with this practice prompt (not the least of which is asking eighth graders to take passages about the red-cockaded woodpecker seriously). We’re now asking students to write about topical issues in science, which is great. Apparently, though, we are asking students to assign blame to the woodpecker for its own demise. While animals often breed or migrate themselves out of existence, it sounds like the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife Conservation has come to other conclusions. It’s not like they smoked themselves into extinction.
Another concern is that we are asking students to respond to two informational texts from the same source. As such, there is not much in the way of contrast present. Both pieces are written well enough, but they don’t provide students an opportunity to see opposing viewpoints.
The prompt also dismisses the writing convention of designating the title of an article with quotation marks. This is an expectation for which students’ scores could be lowered if they did the same. Additionally, the item review committee that provided the SDE with guidance rejected this prompt. Typically, when practitioners reject something, it’s not a good idea to release it to the public as an exemplar.
The prompt also indicates that Reading Information standards 1-6 and 8 and Writing standards 8.2 a-f will be assessed. Pedagogically, this is a poor design. Since students will receive a holistic score for their response, this is way too many standards to claim to be assessing at once. And the standards themselves are not that simple.
For this, the SDE delayed the writing test from the usual February window to April. They wanted to get it right.