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Jewish Testing Wars?

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by R. Rafi Eis

Multiple Intelligences, 21st Century Learning, Differentiated Instruction, Blended Learning, Constructivist Education, One for One, Block Scheduling, Interdisciplinary curriculum, Student Agency, and Project Based Learning comprise just some of the major educational trends of the past few years. Yet after each year of implementing these highly acclaimed initiatives, many educators and parents feel disappointed that much more should have been learned, especially in Judaic Studies.  This is not just a feeling.  A recently created course at Yeshiva University emphasizes the shortfall.

After seeing numerous students enter YU without the requisite skills to read and translate Biblical Hebrew, a group of professors designed an intense literacy course to get the students up to college level.  This course was primarily designed for graduates of Jewish day schools who had devoted half a day of the previous twelve years to learning Jewish texts and yet still struggled to read and translate Chumash.  How could students graduate from grade to grade without learning these basic skills?

This shortcoming is based on two deficiencies in the Jewish Day School world: a lack of standards and a lack of aligned testing.

Fundamentally, American Jewish schools act independently.  Each sets it own curriculum, course offerings, schedule, and extra-curricular activities which meet the unique needs of its student community.  While this sounds ideal, it comes with a very significant downside- the lack of broadly accepted Judaic studies standards.

Without articulated criteria we have no way to objectively distinguish between 2nd grade Chumash and 4th grade Chumash.  Yes, 4th grade Chumash is harder, but in which ways? The amount of content? Words to translate? Pace? Commentaries? Analysis?  In most schools these have not been articulated and therefore students move up from grade to grade regardless of progress, since schools do not have the basis to insist that a student be at a certain level.  That is until they reach a stage which has articulated standards and the student does not meet the standards.

This same scenario occurs every year as students transition from elementary school to high school.  Through 8th grade students are told that they meet the standard, and then in 9th grade there are always students placed at a lower level than expected, sometimes in a remedial course. Imagine the student’s frustration at being suddenly surprised that the previous years were insufficient.  The student also feels embarrassed at not being able to enter the regular course.  The receiving school also feels that easily recognizable deficiencies were papered over instead of being responded to with support.

As an analogy, we would not allow a student to move up from grade to grade without the necessary math skills.  Would we ever tell a 4th grade teacher to differentiate the multiplication curriculum for the student who did not understand odd and even numbers?

Of course teachers have goals, but many of those goals are intuitive.  Articulated goals allow us to develop standards, benchmarks, and an educational system that builds toward the goal. Student achievement, teacher performance, and school success can be measured against them.  In other words, Jewish day schools lack a common curriculum of skills, which prevents ensuring student mastery of learning.

In Chumash for example, knowing 200 shorashim (root words) gives students the key to reading and translating about 90% of Chumash.  Our Jewish educational system would be dramatically improved if we would create benchmarks of the number and even specific roots to be learned in each grade, based on the already developed list of words and their frequency in Tanach.

Learning 200 root words by 8th grade is entirely doable if a school ensures that students learn the 15 root words that they are supposed to learn in 2nd grade.  If the school promotes the student to 3rd grade irrespective of learning, then the 3rd grade teacher won’t be able to teach his/her curricular goals, and the student learns less and less of the curriculum as he progresses from grade to grade.  To use a familiar parallel, teaching Pre-Algebra in 8th grade depends on students learning addition, subtraction, and multiplication tables at the designated time.  Missing the earlier building block prevents learning later skills.

Articulated standards also enable targeted support and interventions.  When a student struggles in English, the Common Core standards enable a teacher to pinpoint the specific area of struggle- within pronunciation is the struggle on decoding, long vowel sounds, blending, or sight words? Alternatively, within comprehension does the student struggle with conversation, following the storyline, or comparison, amongst other possibilities?  The teacher or support personnel can then work with the student specifically on that area.  In Judaic studies, since there are no articulated standards, support becomes more of an intuitive guessing game.

Our schools devote immense resources to learning.  Classrooms are equipped with the latest technology, teachers participate in numerous professional development programs, and schools have a much larger social-emotional and learning specialist staff than ever before.  Ultimately, however, all these resources and the major educational initiatives of the past few years are inputs.

On the other hand, goals, standards, benchmarks, or any similar terms, are outputs.  Inputs will not be successful unless we have articulated the outputs and aligned the inputs to the outputs.  Before we implement any input, we need to know where we are going.  The major output of a school is student learning.

Money too is an (critically important) input.  More money will not solve these issues. Newark, NJ spent $200 million without much educational improvement to its public school system, since it could not align its inputs with outputs.

Standards will also allow for better published materials and more effective sharing of teacher materials.  There will be numerous materials that provide different strategies for reaching the same goal.  If a teacher can reliably use a vendor or peer created assignment, that teacher now has more time to devote to the student himself.

General studies vendors create materials based on the Common Core standards, which provide a thorough map of skills to learn.  Textbooks precisely coordinate knowledge and skills.  Knowledge builds and progresses, with intentional spiraling and without gaps.  Since most Judaic studies courses are taught without the guidance of articulated standards, vendors publish materials that focus more on content, instead of skills.

The Zekelman Standards by the Menachem Education Foundation and the Standards and Benchmarks Project of the Jewish Theological Seminary go in the right direction.  Both however suffer from two critical shortcomings.  At the most basic level, neither has yet achieved widespread adoption in schools or by vendors.

Second, we also do not know how successful the students are since we do not have tests aligned to the standards.  After spending $200 million, Newark, NJ knew that the money was wasted.  It has mandatory testing that informs stakeholders of the reading and math levels of the students.

Since YU has standards and an aligned assessment, it could evaluate the success of its remedial course and implement improvements for the second year.

The American school system has vigorous discussions about the role of testing. Schools have mandatory testing at numerous steps in a student’s career.  To be accepted to college a student needs to take either the SAT or ACT.  Many educators and parents feel that there are too many tests that cause too much student stress, leading to diminishing returns.  Others insist on knowing whether our students are learning as expected.

These types of debates rarely occur in the world of Judaic studies.  We have spirited debates about critical educational issues, such as how to cultivate lifelong learners and passion, but we have no way of knowing if a school successfully teaches Judaic studies.  We do not have our own testing wars because we do not know what we are supposed to measure or how to measure it.

In Good to Great for the Social Sectors, Jim Collins reminds us that all assessments are flawed.  To phrase it differently, we ultimately judge a high school based on its SAT/ACT scores, regardless of what we think of the test. Instead of allowing ourselves to be paralyzed by not having the perfect tool to measure learning, it is more important that we consistently measure and rigorously track results.

We have skill based standards. We now need to thoroughly implement them and assess our effectiveness. Collins puts it more bluntly, “to say we cannot measure performance in the social sectors the way you can in a business is simply a lack of discipline” (p. 7).

About Rafi Eis

Rabbi Rafi Eis is a Ra"m at Midreshet Lindenbaum and is the Director of Educational Programs at The Herzl Institute.

3 comments

  1. Hello,

    I was surprised at setting the goal of 200 words by grade 8. My son who is 5 and going into grade 1 next year will know 200 Shoroshim before he starts grade 1. In fact he knew around 50 words before he even learned how to read Nekudot. It isn’t a secret that language acquisition ability is much higher in primary ages. fyi – my son attends torontocheder.org.

    Eli

    • My boys were also way ahead at that age. One son even learned to lein his bar mitzvah parashah in first grade (because he’s in Bereishis). They forget EVERYTHING unless it is constantly reinforced. When it came time to prepare for his bar mitzvah, he started from scratch.

    • In my experience teaching and in speaking with colleague, way too many students (about 50%) enter high school lacking basic Chumash vocabulary. If a school can teach more, it should, I was trying to point out how critical of a skill it is and will be easily attainable if a plan exists starting from grade 1.

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