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Radical Scholarship: Are Common Core and Testing Debates “Two Different Matters”?

A comment posted on my blog about union support for Common Core (CC)—which parallels my blog post about Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration’s support for CC—represents a typical response coming from standards advocates in the CC debate: “You can’t combine the issue of high stakes testing with the common core [sic] they are two different matters.”

Alfie Kohn in January 2010 argued against national standards in Education Week; I then offered a direct rejection of CC in the same publication in August of 2010. A few others took early stances against CC, such as Susan Ohanian (whose work is impressive and certainly well before most people raised any concerns) and Stephen Krashen.

Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris have taken stances opposing CC more recently, and they represent thoughtful and patient considerations of the exact issue raised by the comment quoted above. At first, Ravitch and Burris appeared willing to consider that CC could prove to be an effective reform mechanism. But both of their explanations for deciding to oppose CC are windows into my initial and continuing stance against the expensive and unnecessary venture into what for most states will be the third or fourth set of standards and high-stakes tests in about thirty years.

I have been a teacher for those thirty years, in fact—the first 18 years spent as a public school teacher in the rural South and the last 13 years as a teacher educator in the same region.

My work as a classroom teacher in the 1980s and 1990s was characterized by quarterly multiple-choice benchmark tests of reading and quarterly writing samples from my students that asked them to write one of four types of writing: description, narration, persuasion, or exposition (types that do not exist as stand-alone forms in the real world, by the way, but exist only in a world where standards and testing rule).

During those years also, state standards changed three times, and concurrent with those changes, we adopted new textbooks and sat through hours and hours of in-service, handed over more and more class time to test-prep, and implemented SAT courses during the school day (ones for which students received credit toward graduation) that required huge investments in hardware and software, which mostly never worked (my home state of SC has a history of so-called low SAT scores so our 1990s approach to addressing that was to encourage more students to take the SAT).

Eventually, the entire state of SC became invested in MAP testing while students at the high school where I taught were assigned two ELA and two math courses as sophomores if they had 8th-grade test data suggesting they would struggle with the state high-stakes tests. Our administration assigned as many as half our sophomores in double ELA and math courses, in fact.

One legacy of this test-mania was that many sophomores in our school wrote only 3-5-3 essays (3-sentence introduction, 5-sentence body paragraph, 3-sentence conclusion) because that was how they were trained to answer on the state writing test—a strategy that did increase how many passed but also ignored good writing pedagogy and mis-educated those students severely.

In the 1980s and 1990s, my high school became a master of doing the wrong thing the right way as we were regularly the top-scoring school in the state on the state’s high-stakes tests.

Once at higher education, I watched my teacher candidates and teachers in the surrounding public schools suffer under yet more revisions to the standards and two different versions of high-stakes tests (since the mid-1980s, SC has implemented BSAP and then PACT and then PASS); now the entire state is implementing CC and poised for the CC-based and once again new set of high-stakes test.

All of this is to say: If you have ever taught in public schools during the past three decades you know that the comment quoted at the beginning is patently false. In fact, if you have taught in public schools during the past three decades you know that CC cannot be separated from highs-stakes testing.

In 2013, with almost all states in the U.S. committed to CC, with the U.S. Department of Education supporting CC, with teachers’ unions supporting CC, with textbook and testing companies supporting CC, and with professional teacher organizations supporting CC, there is a deafening silence about a few facts that must be confronted if anyone or any organization wishes to make this claim: ”You can’t combine the issue of high stakes testing with the common core [sic] they are two different matters”:

  • Name a state in the U.S. that implemented state standards since 1980 without also implementing high-stakes tests.
  • Name a state in the U.S. that has adopted CC and has not adopted some form of high-stakes testing related to CC.
  • Name a state that does not have high-stakes accountability mechanisms in place—as a legacy of state legislation and/or as a result of complying with federal mandates within policy such as Race to the Top or opting out of NCLB.
  • Name a school (especially a high-poverty school) where “what is tested is what is taught” does not drive most of what occurs in that school.
  • Name a state that is not spending tax payer money (totaling in the 10s if not 100s of millions of dollars nationally) on CC resources and technology, CC-aligned text books, CC testing, and CC teacher in-service.
  • Name a strong CC advocate who isn’t making money and/or gaining political advantage by endorsing CC.

My doctorate is in curriculum and instruction. A foundational part of my doctoral study and dissertation research, then, explored the century-old debate about what content matters, what should be taught in public schools. Any standards movement is a direct descendent of the larger curriculum debate.

While John Dewey and even Joseph Schwab provide engaging and powerful places upon which Eliot Eisner and others have the luxury of thinking deeply about esoteric things (issues that I too find fascinating), in the real world of day-to-day K-12 teaching, it is pure delusion and myopic idealism to make claims that CC and high-stakes testing debates are “two different matters.”

Around 2000 when my daughter was 11 and attending a public middle school, she came out to the car one day leaning against the weight of her giant backpack, slid into my car, and then said: “All they care about is the PACT test [SC's high-stakes test at the time]; they don’t care if we learn anything.” [1] She never once as a student mentioned the standards. And in many ways as a child of the accountability era, I think she learned to hate school. She loved her friends and loved many of her teachers, but she hated what school had become throughout the 1990s—which pales to what school has become in the twenty-first century.

Thus, address the bullet points above if you don’t believe me, or better yet, ask a classroom teacher—not a union leader, not a politician, not a representative of Pearson, not a consultant.

[1] See “Standards, Standards Everywhere, and Not a Spot to Think,” English Journal (2001, September).

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P.L. Thomas

Paul Thomas, Professor of Education, taught high school English in rural South Carolina before moving to teacher education. Recent books include Parental Choice?:...