Faculty Writing Project

225 Humanities Building

Martin, TN 38238


(731) 881-7300


David Carithers, Facilitator

Faculty Writing Project

Ken Volger


"This seminar has been a wonderful experience. Meeting and working with colleagues to discuss strategies to each writing and develop personal writing has been very beneficial."




"No time for that?" I must have misunderstood her.

"You want us to shorten the social studies and science classes because we have no time for that, and add more time to the English and mathematics classes?" As a social studies teacher and member of an 8th grade interdisciplinary team, I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Yet, as the principal proceeded to explain to our team why we needed to add more time to English and mathematics at the expense of social studies and science, I could begrudgingly understand her logic: A high percentage of our students had failed previous administrations of our state's high-stakes test, the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS). Starting with the class of 2003, all students must pass with a required score the English and mathematics sections of the MCAS as a requirement for high school graduation. Therefore, more instructional time should be devoted to English and mathematics, and less instructional time should be spent on subjects such as social studies and science that are tested but do not have a MCAS passing score requirement for high school graduation.

George Madaus (1988) describes the influence of high-stakes tests on education with seven principles. His seventh principle states "a high-stakes test transfers control of the curriculum to the agency that sets or controls the exam" (p.97). The high-stakes such as high school graduation, attached to state-mandated test results, have forced administrators, especially in those schools where students have not tested well, into making drastic changes in curriculum. These curricular changes have not been sound, permanent changes designed to improve overall quality of their educational program as hoped for by the advocates of high-stakes testing. Rather, these changes are short term and quick fix measures that are intended solely to limit, if not prevent, high-stakes consequences from being inflicted on that school's administration, teachers, or students. A proposal such as increasing instructional time on subjects that have a mandated passing score requirement and decreasing instructional time on subjects that are either not tested or do not require a passing score for high school graduation is not intended to improve the overall quality or cohesiveness of an educational program. Instead, it seems a desperate measure designed to defend students against failing the high-stakes test and suffering the state-mandated consequence of not graduating high school.

In this article, I will discuss two reforms spawned by the movement toward greater educational accountability, test-based reform and standards-based reform. Next, I will present the impact the two reform movements have had on curriculum and instruction. Then I will explain why our team felt it was necessary to move from a mostly discipline-based curriculum to a completely integrated curriculum using state standards. Finally, I will describe the experience of working with students to develop this curriculum, and the pleasure of teaching this curriculum.


The desire to hold educators and public school systems accountable for the academic achievement of their students has resulted in the creation of not one, but two different educational reform movements. Both reform movements fall under the guise of educational accountability, but their focus, methods, and intentions are vastly different. The first movement is called test-based reform. Described as the evil twin (Thompson, 2001), test-based reform uses a single indicator such as a high-stakes test to judge a student's academic progress. When high-stakes such as grade to grade promotion, possible takeover of schools with consistently low levels of student performance, and high school graduation are attached to this single indicator, the result has been the implementation of policies and practices that are not only detrimental to students and teachers, but threaten to destroy the wonder, excitement, and pure joy of learning.

The first problem with test-based reform has been the design and type of test used in state accountability programs. A number of states are using tests that are either not aligned with standards they are supposed to measure, or that are norm referenced rather than criterion referenced tests (Falk, 2002). It is very difficult, if not impossible to accurately assess student knowledge of content specified in the state standards by using tests that do not cover the same material. Also, using norm referenced tests whose purpose is to compare one student's performance to another student's performance instead of using criterion referenced tests whose purpose is to determine the specific skill level of a student, assures that only half of the test-takers will earn scores above the mean. Thereby statistically ensuring low scores for half of the test-takers regardless of their performance.

Second, scores on high-stakes tests are only a measure of students' socioeconomic status (Clancy, 2000; Kohn, 2001; Sacks, 1999; Wilgoren, 2000). Researchers have found students' performance on high-stakes tests has "almost everything to do with parental socioeconomic backgrounds, and less to do with teachers, curricula, or what the children learned in the classroom" (Clancy, 2000, A19). For example, in Massachusetts, every year since the MCAS scores were reported to the public, the school systems earning the highest overall student average test scores have also been in the most affluent communities in the state. Also, the school systems earning the lowest MCAS scores have mostly been in the low income, urban communities in Massachusetts. These tests merely perpetuate and reinforce inequalities in public education Kozol (1991) described over a decade ago.

The third problem with test-based reform has been the increase in unethical test administration, supervision, and preparation practices (Ligon, 2000; Lueker, 2000). It should hardly be a surprise that cheating on these high-stakes tests is on the rise. With decisions such as grade to grade promotion, high school graduation, possible takeover of schools, and continued employment all being decided by the results of a single test that teachers generally agree they have no control over (Smith, 1991), the pressure on teachers, students, parents, and school administrators has become unbearable. Because the stakes associated with the test are so critical, and the belief that the test is "a rigged game," cheating, or testing practices teetering on the edge of cheating will continue.

Fourth, test-based reform has brought about implementation of "teacher-proof" curricula. In an effort to improve test scores in the shortest amount of time, school systems, usually low income and urban, are buying and implementing packaged curricular programs (Falk, 2002; McNeil, 2000; Vogler & Kennedy, in press). These curricular programs are touted by the manufactures as a quick and effective way to improve test scores. Described by critics as "teacher-proof," these instructional packages include teacher and student workbooks, teacher guides and other accompanying materials. Also included are highly scripted lessons that tell the teacher exactly what to say and when to say it. The implication is that these "teacher-proof" programs are so easy to use, that even a teacher can use them.

These standardized "teacher-proof" programs intend to assure school officials that every teacher in a particular grade, regardless of the school, is teaching the same scripted lesson everyday. Thereby, providing a combination of uniform preparation and optimal use of instructional time to ready students for the high-stakes test. Unfortunately, these "teacher proof" programs focus only on content coverage and test-taking skills, and fail to consider the individual. Scripted lessons don't allow for "teachable moments," different student learning styles, nor individual strengths or weaknesses. Students are forced to try to learn in a standardized, mythical, one size fits all program that fails to address their differing abilities, goals, dreams, or passions.

Fifth, test-based reform has given rise to the creation of a content area hierarchy. By 2008, 21 states will require students to pass a high-stakes test based on 10th grade or higher content area learning standards for high school graduation (Quality Counts, 2002). But, of these 21 states, only 11 states require or will require students to pass a high-stakes test in the content areas of English, mathematics, science, and social studies. The other ten states require or will require students to pass a high-stakes test in only the content areas of English and mathematics to graduate high school.

In states having a high-stakes test but only attach consequences such as high school graduation to the results of certain content areas, a hierarchy of content area importance has developed. At its apex are content areas that are tested and have a passing score requirement for high school graduation. Second are those content areas that are tested but do not have a passing score requirement for high school graduation. Finally, at the bottom of this hierarchy are those content areas that are not tested. An example of this hierarchy of content area importance can be found in Massachusetts. Massachusetts is a state that uses a high-stakes test (MCAS) but attaches a high school graduation requirement to only the results of the English and mathematics sections. As a result, English and mathematics have taken instructional precedence, and in fact have become more important than all other content areas. The second most important content areas have become science and social studies because these content areas are tested on the MCAS, but do not carry a passing score requirement needed for high school graduation. Finally, the remaining content areas such as foreign language, music, and art are of least importance in this hierarchy because they are not tested on the MCAS.

A sixth problem associated with test-based reform is that it has forced changes in instruction and curriculum that are not designed to improve students' academic skills and knowledge, but rather to improve test scores. These changes in instruction have included squandering valuable classroom time teaching test taking skills and other test prepping activities (Falk, 2002; Thompson, 2001). Changes in curriculum have included narrowing the curriculum to only information and subjects that will be on the test (Bauer et al., 1990; Corbett & Wilson, 1991; Darling-Hammond & Wise, 1985; Falk, 2002; Hargrove et al., 2000; Shepard et al., 1991; Smith, 1991; Thompson, 2001). And, as discussed earlier, the high-stakes attached to this single indicator have pressured some administrators into discussing policies that do more than just narrow the curriculum to only those subjects that are tested on the single indicator, but further narrow the curriculum to only those subjects tested that have the most severe consequences- i.e., a passing score requirement for high school graduation.

The last problem with test-based reform is the use of a single test to make high-stakes decisions. "Expecting all students to reach the same adult-determined level of performance at the same time?is a blatant violation of everything that is know about individual differences" (Vars, 2001, p.8). The use of one test to make high-stakes decisions is not only grossly unfair, but its focus on constriction and conformity rather than originality, creativity, and individuality is exactly opposite of those traits we value as a society and need as a democracy. To make decisions such as grade-to-grade promotion and high school graduation, we must have as much information and from as many different sources as possible. A joint position statement by the American Educational Research Association, the American Psychological Association, and the National Council on Measurement and Evaluation regarding high-stakes testing echoes this sentiment, and seeks to include pliancy rather than rigidity when making high-stakes decisions.

The other movement created by educational accountability is called standards-based reform (Thompson, 2001). Standards-based reform is also designed to hold educators and public school systems accountable for student achievement, but its focus is on improving teaching and learning, not the results of a single indicator. Using content area learning standards, standards-based reform provides teachers and students with a broad framework of learning expectations. These learning expectations, or standards, are the starting point for teachers, students, parents, and others to devise challenging curricula that describe what all students are learning and provide numerous opportunities for students to demonstrate how they have met the standards. Standards-based reform allows educators to use the content area learning standards as the framework for creative and exciting curricula. This is done without using a single, fallible indicator such as a high-stakes test as the means of determining whether standards have been met and rewards or consequences should be enacted.


So what do you tell your principal when she asks you to shorten the social studies and science classes and add more time to the English and mathematics classes in an effort to better prepare students for the high-stake test so they can ultimately graduate high school? For our team, the principal's request was a wake up call. We had always complained bitterly about the test, what it did and didn't measure, and why decisions such as high school graduation shouldn't be made on the basis of one test. But we never discussed what we, as a team, should do about it.

The easiest thing to do would have been to go along with the principal's request and just shorten the social studies and science classes. After all, that's what we did when the reading classes were removed from the curriculum in favor of a test preparation or should I say, a test sophistication program that focused on the test taking skills needed to be successful on the MCAS. Although that program was mandated by central office, we said little about its inclusion into the curriculum. But, if we didn't do something soon there was no telling what would be next on the list to cut or amend.

The answer was to change the way we were using our state's curriculum frameworks-the state standards. What we had been doing, and obviously wasn't working, was to only use the standards to defend the curriculum and activities we already had in place. We needed to take a proactive approach and use the standards to devise our own curriculum. We decided to use the state standards as the end point, in other words, what our students needed to learn and be able to do, and work toward the type of lessons we would use- the "backward design" process advocated by Wiggins and McTighe (1998), and Jackson and Davis (2000). But, unlike some educational theorists (Clark & Clark, 2001), we felt that it was very important not only to make certain the curriculum addressed the standards, but that we used an integrated curriculum. This was important for two reasons. First, besides the numerous theorists advocating an integrated curriculum for adolescents (e.g., Beane, 1993; Caskey, 2001/02; Jacobs, 1989; Vars, 2001), research has shown that adolescents are more actively engaged in an integrated curriculum based on their problems and interests rather than a traditional disciplinary curriculum (Drake, 1998; Vars & Beane, 2000). Second, without using an integrated curriculum, we would be forced to acquiesce to the principal's decision to shorten the social studies and science classes.


Our plan to use the state standards as a base for an integrated curriculum began in accordance with the democratic principle of curriculum development outlined by Beane (1993). In an effort to create an exciting, relevant, and interesting curriculum based on own state's standards, we decided to involve our students as much as possible in the development and planning process. We began by having students form curriculum groups. Each group had one or two members responsible for a particular content area, English, mathematics, social studies, or science. Besides for the 8th grade textbooks students already had, each group was given a classroom copy of state standards for grades 5-8 in each of the four content areas. During their planning, students were allowed and encouraged to look at other curriculum materials available in the classroom, as well as seek advice from teachers and students from other groups. The student groups were given only two directions: First, use social studies as the curriculum integration focal point (see Diem, 1996). This was because the skills and content noted in the social studies framework overlapped or provided a context with which to use the English, mathematics, and science standards. Second, try to incorporate as many of the state standards as you can within a unit.

After we had the integrated curriculum units completed, our plan was to present them to the public. Because we were already required by our school system to include with each lesson plan a list of the state standard(s) that the lesson meets, and because we already had a newsletter for parents and guardians describing by discipline the content that would be covered during that particular month, we decided to use the monthly newsletter as a way to showcase our integrated units. We were going to give the name, background information, as well as a listing of the state standards in each discipline that would be covered by the unit. This newsletter would be used as a way to help us promote our use of curriculum integration. We hoped a complete description of each unit as well as the intended outcomes would prevent us from having to constantly defend the use of curriculum integration from parents, guardians, and some administrators who were either used to a traditional disciplinary format, or believe that a strictly disciplinary curriculum helped students achieve higher high-stakes test scores (see Weilbacher, 2001).


The process of collaborating with our students to create integrated curriculum units was a unique learning experience. Most students realized the importance of the assignment, and this was evident in the seriousness in which they undertook the task. For many, this assignment was also an empowering experience. As one student remarked, "If we have to know this stuff to graduate, at least we now have a chance to make it somewhat interesting." It was also surprising how quickly students understood the significance of the content area standards. Our students, as well as most of the other public school students in the state, have been bombarded by MCAS rhetoric since the time they started school. They all knew about the consequences associated with MCAS, especially that they need to pass certain content area tests to graduate high school. For many, this was the first time they actually saw the state standards and found out what it is they were supposed to learn.

I wish I could say that our collaboration was a complete success. I wish I could say that we (students and teachers) devised a wonderfully exciting and intensely interesting integrated curriculum consisting of a series of units that not only met all the grade level standards in every content area, but also captured the attention and imagination of all our students. Unfortunately, this wasn't the case. We did however make substantial improvements in the curriculum. First, students changed a number of former disciplinary units into integrated curriculum units. They did this sometimes by simply adding activities, other times by changing the sequence in which the units were to be taught during the school year. Second, we devised an entire integrated curriculum unit encompassing several state standards for each discipline.

The integrated curriculum unit that we created together is called "New England and the Industrial Revolution." It begins with an overview of the Industrial Revolution from its English roots, to a focus on the textile mills that operated in Lowell and Lawrence, Massachusetts. Students also read a school district required novel about the life of a Lowell mill girl by Katherine Paterson entitled Lyddie. In science and technology, students learn about how rivers and canals were used for power to run the textile mills, and compare the design of machines used in a mid-19th century textile mill to machines used in a textile mill today. Pretending to be a textile mill owner, students use geometry, and measurement to draw their own scale model of a mid-19th century New England textile mill. They also use computation skills to calculate their daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly mill output and profit estimations. Finally, students use charts and graphs to communicate their findings.

Students also added a number of activities to former disciplinary units. In a unit on the American Revolution, John Hancock and Thomas Paine are put on trial for crimes against the King. In a reoccurring theme about perspective, students write letters about different events or movements in American History; a Tory writing about the American Revolution, a farmer describing the changes bought on by the Industrial Revolution, an immigrant discussing life in the New World. The Lewis and Clark expedition is used to present the physical and cultural geography of the United States.

There was the look of pride on students' faces. Teaching these units was an affirmation that their opinions and ideas mattered. Students now had ownership of the material, which fostered a renewed interest in learning. We had insightful classroom discussions, few discipline issues, and wonderful demonstrations of knowledge and achievement. These accomplishments were not due to the consequences associated with high-stakes tests, but because students were learning on their terms. Using state standards in a way that peaked their interest and fulfilled their needs.


Making educators and public school systems accountable for the academic achievement of their students has given birth to two intertwined, but vastly different reform movements. The first, test-based reform, uses fear, intimidation, and consequences to back up a one size fits all, single indicator, otherwise known as a high-stakes test. And, because severe consequences, such as high school graduation, are attached to the results of this test, one out of every four members of the class of 2003, or 15,300 Massachusetts public school students, as of now, will not be able to graduate high school because they have yet to pass the test (Vaishnaw, 2002). The other, standards-based reform, allows for, and actually welcomes creativity, originality, and imagination, in an effort to meet standards that are not only achievable, but allow for students' individuality.

Looking back on it, its quite remarkable that the promise, excitement, and enriching experience we had when working with our students to create standards-based integrated curriculum units was brought about because of the consequences mandated by high-stakes testing. Educational accountability can be accomplished without drastic consequences attached to high-stakes tests. Unfortunately, as has been discussed, the curriculum changes schools are making in an effort to help their students achieve satisfactory test scores are destroying the very same educational programs accountability programs were supposed to improve.

Ziegler (2000) is right; standards are our friends. They provide an assurance to the public about what students will learn and be able to do, yet allow students and teachers the flexibility to decide how they will meet the standards.


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Wilgoren, J. (2000, March 14). Florida's vouches a spun to two schools left behind. The New York Times, p. A18.
Ziegler, M. J. (2000). Standards are our friends. The Core Teacher, 50(3), 5-8.

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225 Humanities Building

Martin, TN 38238


(731) 881-7300


David Carithers, Facilitator