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Education Insiders: Common Core’s Testing Woes

by Fawn Johnson

The Common Core State Standards for elementary and secondary schools weren't supposed to be controversial. They weren't supposed to incite active protests. They were supposed to be different from the unpopular, exacting tenets of No Child Left Behind. They were deliberately negotiated by consensus and carefully put together to stop the federal government from creeping in to the public school system. They carry with them a worthy goal that everyone can agree with: prepare our kids for real jobs in the real world with real skills.

So what's the problem? And why now? The answer to both questions is testing. Now that it's time for states to actually measure how their students are doing, it's a lot harder to gloss over the problems with feel-good talking points. Some states are going ahead with their first tests assessing how well students are learning under the new curriculum. Other states have dropped out of the testing, citing concerns about cost and effectiveness. Politicians on both sides of the aisle are questioning the Common Core, as this recent take from New Jersey illustrates. The tea party is mobilizing against it. Some parents are even pulling their kids from all standardized testing.

The backlash shouldn't be a surprise if you take a step back and think about it. Coming to agreement on the basic skills kids should learn is hard enough. Measuring the outcome in a meaningful way is even harder. No one wants to be the guinea pig. No one wants to be blamed for poor results.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan has been unapologetic about pushing for Common Core. "Yes, it's going to be a hard and sometimes rocky or bumpy transition to higher standards," he said in a recent interview with USA Today's Susan Page on NPR's The Diane Rehm Show. "I think I speak for most parents that, you know, you want more for your children, not less. And I tell you the one thing I absolutely don't want is I don't want to be lied to. I don't want people to tell me my children are ready for success when they're not in the game."

The left-leaning Economic Policy Institute's Richard Rothstein was also a guest on the show that day (as was I and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute's Mike Petrilli). Rothstein's criticism of Common Core, as with all student assessments, is that they tend to narrow the teaching. "Teachers have had incentives to narrow the curriculum to the things that are tested. Students have been trained to take tests rather than to learn the underlying curriculum," he said.

Petrilli, a conservative and a staunch advocate of Common Core, noted that the administration's enthusiasm for the standards can dampen conservatives' abilities to promote it on their end. But he also agrees with Duncan. "The goal with this effort is to dramatically raise the bar and say, look, if you really want to be on track for college or career, it's a very high standard. And unfortunately right now, we're giving parents the false impression that everything is fine when it's not."

So what's the final score? Now that most of the country has adopted the standards, is Common Core failing on its second lap around the field? Will we ever be able to test how our kids are doing? Will there be consensus on whether testing is worthwhile at all? How can the tests be crafted such that they are more like Advanced Placement exams rather than fill-in-the-bubble tests? Should parents have the right to yank their kids from these tests? How do we muddle through this mess?

by Bill Mathis

While some have been surprised at the backlash to the common core, perhaps we should be surprised that the objections have been so moderate. I expect them to become more intense.

Here’s why:

  • While retroshopped as being developed by consensus, Robert Rothman explains in his semi-official history of the core that it was intentionally developed behind closed doors. All those pesky educators and curriculum people were just too disruptive. Expect the professional controversy to grow.
  • The objection will come as educators and the public delve into the core and see that many of the standards are irrelevant and age inappropriate. While one can pick from almost any grade level, here’s a high school math example:

"CCSS.Math.Content.HSF-LE.A.4 For exponential models, express as a logarithm the solution to abct = d where a, c, and d are numbers and the base b is 2, 10, or e; evaluate the logarithm using technology."

      The sober fact is that 95% of high school graduates will never use this skill. This is easily confirmed by checking out the      
      Georgetown workforce projections, and the work of Murnane and Levy on skills needed for the twenty-first century. An
      emphasis on the core’s reductionist-essentialist content is misfocused and the sad fact is, this is well-known!

  • The democratic approval process was side-stepped. ACHIEVE Inc. is a private company which was founded by NGA and CCSSO to develop national standards following the failure of the earlier national standards and testing effort in the 1990s. The state adoption process was not characterized by intensive review. For the most part, state boards were told this was a good thing by their chief and they compliantly approved. Some state boards adopted the core before it was completed. Now we hear legislators and governors saying, “Wait a minute! Maybe we better have a look at this.” This should come as no surprise and is a natural corrective.
  • The validation of the common core was based on bench-marking to standards in other countries on the explicit premise that if we adopted education content just like those other countries, the United States would be economically competitive! It doesn’t take much knowledge of the many factors influencing national economic health to see that this reasoning is far too simplistic and superficial.
    It is an example of the “false cause” fallacy, whose most famous economic development personification was the South Seas Cargo Cult. As far as real-life validation against external criteria, it doesn’t have any.
  • “College and Career Ready” is an oxymoron. A casual dive into workforce training needs shows wide variation in the level of skills needed for different jobs. The mathematics skills for MIT physics majors differ considerably from those needed for career certification programs at the local community college. This is painfully obvious. Yet, advocates repeat this one-size-fits-all litany as if it reflected some form of deep universal truth.
  • Underlying the effort is a deep suspicion that cut-off scores on demonstrably over-inflated content will be set so high that large numbers of students will fail which will, in turn, be used as political fodder for privatizing public schools which will, in turn, cause greater inequalities. Look at the recent New York state controversy.
  • While we’re talking about the power of suspicions, many observers have noted that the most ardent supporters of the core are corporations that stand to make a lot of money in computers, learning materials and workshops from this initiative.

So, should we be surprised that there is a backlash to the common core?

It is the tea party’s objections that are given the most publicity. But their state’s rights mantra is countered by core proponents who say common standards are necessary for equality. However, this particular back-and-forth is off-point.

The reason we should take a new and closer look is that the core is based on bad science and a misreading of social and economic needs. Its foundation is little more than vague unsubstantiated assertions, shopped by people with a vested interest in the outcome. More importantly, the danger is that it completely ignores the nation’s greatest educational problem, inequality of opportunity. In this, the core offers only false hopes and distracts us from our moral imperative.

William J. Mathis
Managing Director
National Education Policy Center
University of Colorado Boulder

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William J. Mathis

William J. Mathis is a Senior Policy Advisor to the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder and the former superintendent of school...

Fawn Johnson

Fawn Johnson is a correspondent for National Journal, covering a range of issues including immigration, transportation and education. Johnson is a long-time stude...