The writing assignment every Common Core opponent should read

The Common Core, Ohio’s new learning standards in English language arts and math, has been under fire. To the naysayers who are still fuming over the implementation of these standards, they might want to consider the drivel that the Common Core seeks to leave behind.

This 9th grade writing assignment appears on the West Virginia Department of Education’s website. (Note, the other samples aren’t much better!)

DIRECTIONS:  Read the passage and prompt and type a composition in the box below.

PASSAGE: Extreme Weather

Many areas have begun to experience extreme weather conditions throughout the year. The winter might be filled with many days of cold temperatures and massive amounts of snow, while the summer might have several days of 100-degree temperatures and little precipitation.

In the winter, many people want nothing more than to find some way of staying cozy and warm. In the summer, people want to try to get outside and find a way to avoid the sweltering temperatures and oppressive heat.

PROMPT: Choose one day, either in the winter or summer, in which you imagine such extreme weather. Write an essay in which you vividly describe this day. What sights, sounds, smells, tastes and textures do you encounter on this day? How do you escape from the extreme weather of the day you chose?

Sigh. Ninth grade students ought to read richer texts than this morass of muck. “Cozy and warm”? Is this high-school-level language? “In the summer, people want to try to get outside [sic].” Is there any discernible purpose to this passage? Logical development? In other words, is it worth a student’s time to comment on, much less unpack, this sad-sack passage?

While the text is laughable, worse yet is the prompt. “Sights, sounds, smells, sounds and textures”: what do smells and textures have to do with extreme weather? Is a student to imagine—and write about—the smell of burnt skin on a sizziling sidewalk? Or maybe she could allude to how Ralphie’s poor friend in the Christmas Story gets his tongue stuck to the flagpole. I suppose that counts for "texture." What’s the point of a ninth-grader imagining a hot/cold/rainy day in the first place? Who cares.

Fortunately, West Virginia—graded a “D” in English language arts in Fordham’s evaluation of state standards—has voluntarily adopted the Common Core. Good decision. Any red-blooded American ought to be outraged by reading and writing assignments such as this. And it is the intention of the Common Core to put lame passages and prompts out of style. Take a gander, for instance, at PARCC’s 10th grade ELA test-item prototype. Pretty impressive—the texts are an excerpt from Ovid’s Metamorphoses and poetry by Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Sexton. The writing prompt then asks students to analyze the two texts and develop an essay based on the textual evidence. If teachers “teach to this test,” okay with me.

The Common Core--the standards and assessments, taken together--are right to place the text front-and-center. Not the students’ imagination, not their feelings, not their personal opinion or reflection. Foremost instead should be the extraction of meaning from the text—discovering what the author intends by observing basic English grammar and syntax, logical connections, word choice, and the use of figurative language and allusion. Basic interpretive skills should be the heart of reading and writing, all the while utilizing texts worth understanding.

Okay, this example comes from West Virginia—not exactly an educational powerhouse. But if this is any indication of how educators across the U.S. have constructed reading and writing assignments in recent times, there is a clear need for higher academic standards. Schools, in Ohio, West Virginia, and across the nation, must give students the opportunity to learn conventional English from and to come to terms with texts worthy of their time and energy. Seems to me that the Common Core standards and the assessments aligned to them have the potential to animate educators towards these vital goals.

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