This question comes from a dedicated secondary English teacher and department chair:

I am in complete agreement with your letter about the standards and with your stated position on common curriculum and standards. But what is the law in this regard? We have been told that our assessments must, by state law, be the same. In fact we cannot use questions from a common test bank for assessments—the questions must be the same, or we are out of compliance. My fear is that these very good standards (most of which we were already covering quite well) have been corrupted by some legislator’s decision that all assessments be exactly the same (for all disciplines). If we in our district are wrong about this aspect of the law, please let me know. I as well find our efforts counterproductive to the teaching of language arts.

Dear Dedicated Teacher,

The state legislation relating to content expectations in English is MCL 380.1278a and MCL 380.1278b, part of the newly adopted "Michigan Merit Curriculum." The legal documents are available for reading at the MDE site: http://www.michigan.gov/mde/0,1607,7-140-38924---,00.htm or, more fully, at the State of Michigan site at
www.michigan.gov/documents/mde/High_School_Reform_Legislation_Web_Information_193644_7.doc

The law now requires that in order to graduate from a Michigan high school students now need to have completed 4 years of English (along with 3.5 years of math, 3 years of social studies, science, 2 years of foreign language, 1 of health/PE, one of art, and an "on-line learning experience."

While specific courses are required in math, science, and social studies, that is NOT the case in English. The only requirement is that English courses be aligned with the subject area content expectations. These content expectations while comprehensive, are also extremely flexible. For example, they do not mandate specific genres, national traditions, or literary works be taught at specific grade levels.

Regarding assessment, 380.1278a section 4b states, "A school district or public school academy shall base its determination of whether or not a pupil has successfully completed the subject area content expectations or guidelines developed by the department that apply to a credit at least in part on the pupil's performance on the assessments developed or selected by the department under section 12789b or on 1 or more assessments developed or selected by the school district or public school academy that measure a pupil's understanding of the subject area content expectations or guidelines that apply to the credit."

In the law districts are clearly given the freedom to develop or select assessments to measure student understanding of the content expectations. The law does not say that that such assessments need to be based on specific works, specific curricular units, or that such assessments need to be "in common" for each course or grade level or for all students. In fact, the word "course" is avoided in favor of the word "credit."

There is nothing in the law that prevents a district from using individual course assessments already in place, if they measure the content expectations. The word "assessment" is not confined to "test" or even "standardized test." In fact, the extensive research in authentic assessment makes clear that uniform and simplistic testing approaches are not good measures of student learning. This is especially true in the language arts. Assessment includes observation of students in-class participation, presentations, projects, the whole range of written work, as well as tests. There is nothing in the law that states that all 91 English content expectations must be met in every class -- they should be met, as they were designed, over the course of the required four years of English.

In short, you can not blame Michigan legislators for the fact that you have been told that state law requires common curriculum and tests. While such a possibility might be encompassed in the law, the statutes are, in fact, far more flexible. Instead, some probably well meaning, but simply put, misguided, administrators at either your district, at your ISD or in the MDE are trying to force a particular interpretation, one that is NOT required by law, and one that, unfortunately, seriously undermines high achievement for all students and goes against the spirit and purpose of the Michigan English Language Arts Content Expectations. Unfortunately this happens too often in education, where some kind of poorly informed approach is promoted second and third hand through the system, but is either seriously distorted from its original purpose, or was cooked up by someone who, in fact, knows little about what he or she is talking about.

Anyone with a sound understanding of secondary language arts content and instruction will not advocate for the common curriculum and test approach that is being urged on you and your colleagues. This approach seriously waters down the value of the credits students will earn in your classes, credits that your students need to complete at a challenging level to fulfill the Michigan Merit Curriculum.

I think it is pretty clear what to do. You need to trust your professional judgment. You say you are in complete agreement that high achievement is not created by forcing all students through the same curriculum, so don't do it, and don't knuckle under to ill-informed so-called "curriculum specialists." If you truly care about the learning of your students their college and work place success, and your district cares about their achievement on tests, then you should urge your district to proceed in a manner that will set and maintain the highest standards.

As you work to educate your district about English language arts curriculum, know that you have behind you the authors and academic reviewers of the new Michigan content expectations, over 50 professors of English education in the state, the Michigan Council of the Teachers of English, the Michigan Reading Association, and a large and deep pool of professional research rejecting the kind of standardization you are being asking to perform.

See Common Assessment