Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Common Core, Standardized Testing and How We Got Here

There is a revolution of sorts underway in our educational system here in the United States, but it isn't one that everyone is excited about. This revolution isn't one that is coming at the urging of educators, it isn't coming at the behest of concerned parents, it is coming from the top down this time. This revolution is one that, if you have children in school, teach or have any exposure to the world of education, you are most likely already aware of, at least in some capacity.

This major shift is collectively referred to as Common Core...but what is it exactly?

I'm going to try to answer some of the most common questions that people have, address some of the concerns, and discuss how and why we ended up here in the first place. Then, I will talk about what we can do about it.

Before I do any of that, I want to give you all a little bit of background about myself. Before we left California, I was enrolled in a credential program to become an elementary school teacher. I had completed all the prerequisites and done some student teaching already. We moved in the middle of it, and the programs here in Colorado were completely different. Though I have not officially worked as a teacher in a public school district, I do have a significant amount of the background knowledge. I'm also looking at this as someone with a legal background and as the mother of several children currently in school. I have some unique insights into this subject as I have many friends working as teachers and administrators at all levels in several districts around the country. I've been working on this post for a while now, and I hope that I address the major concerns you might have, though due to time and space constraints, it's going to be virtually impossible for me to address them all. 

I also want you to be aware that much of what is in this post is my personal opinion, based on what I have seen. I'm not citing anyone I know personally, I'm not tying anything to the district we are in specifically, I'm not discussing any specific schools or teachers or curriculum issues. These are generalizations based on observations, and my opinions are mine. 

With all that out of the way, though my interest in this topic is certainly one from the perspective of policy and society, it is also one that I'm personally invested in. As I write this, one of my children is being used as a guinea pig in a standardized testing pilot program. They are taking three days of instruction away to pilot a computer based test that won't even count for or against the kids who are taking it right now. 

When I say he is being made a guinea pig, I mean it pretty literally. He isn't the only one of my children who is being subjected to pilot testing this year either. 

I mention the testing because reality is that standardized testing has become a routine part of school life for students, for teachers, for administrators. More and more time is being spent with each passing year it seems on these tests. When we were children growing up in California, we were subjected to a few days of standardized testing once a year, and California was, at the time, an anomaly. I know many people who never endured even the testing we were given back then.

How did we go from a system that spent a few days at most testing children to one that resembles what we have now?

It's not a simple answer, and it's something that has concerned people for quite a while now. For decades the only major tests that students had to worry about were the SAT and ACT, used in college admissions. Now, routine testing begins in our district at the kindergarten level, state testing begins by third grade.

The Department of Education didn't even exist until 1979 when it was created under the Carter Administration. Prior to that it was included along with Health and Human Services. At the time, schools were subject to state and local regulation only with no intrusion or interference from the federal government.  Under the tenth amendment,  the states are supposed to retain the right to handle all issues not set aside for the federal government, a contentious issue in many areas including education. Education essentially went from being a state issue to a federal one that year, though the issue has never been widely accepted by everyone and is still being challenged now, particularly in light of recent changes.

In 2002, President Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act into law, which will still cause most veteran educators to cringe a bit. The law, with the intention of raising standards and creating accountability for failing schools, mandated for the first time that all students were to be tested. The results of those tests were to be used to gauge growth and select out failing schools. Couched as an aid program for disadvantaged students, it focused on setting high standards, creating measurable goals and forcing the entire education system to find ways to evaluate how much students were learning.

While the intention of the law might have been sound, the effect of it has been that schools have become increasingly focused on test scores. Curricula have been altered to concentrate on the topics that appear on the tests. Learning has been pieced out so that the students can jump through the hoops we decide they are supposed to jump through.  Under NCLB, the only way a school can receive federal funding is to test students and show Adequate Yearly Progess (AYP), though the tests themselves are set under state laws.

Around the time that NCLB was enacted, there was a huge public push, coming mostly from dissatisfied parents, for school choice. To really know if one school was better than another, there had to be some sort of objective criteria to use as a basis for comparison. Parents, in many ways, helped to create the testing beast we are dealing with now. 

The consequence of enacting school choice is two fold. First, and perhaps worst, is the truth that once it's out there, once you've given parents the opportunity to enroll in any school they choose, once there are other publicly funded alternatives, you can't put the rabbit back in the hat. Once it is out there, it is out there. 

The second issue with school choice (and vouchers and charter schools and every other incarnation of school choice that has been created in the past few decades) is that it takes away any personal investment in a particular school. If parents are dissatisfied, they can just leave. There is no incentive on their part to help work to improve schools. Compound that issue for a few decades and you can see that failing schools keep failing because they are losing students. Then they lose funding. Then their test scores might go down even more. If the scores go down, teachers may be faulted. Lower enrollment affects the number of FTEs a school has. And the cycle keeps spinning. 

So, as of the beginning of this decade, we now have a system in total disrepair. Parents are dissatisfied. The federal government, in an attempt to force accountability, has created an enormous testing burden that districts must pay for or risk losing federal funds. You might think that all this came with some tangible benefit to students, that we were doing a better job for them, right?

Wrong. Compared to other nations, we are slipping and have been for some time now. 

In fact, there is growing criticism of our system by a unlikely source - college professors and the high school teachers that are issuing them the warnings about this generation of students. Professors are now being made to teach classrooms full of students who grew up in this test-focused, accountability driven system. Their test scores are fine, but everything else is lacking. These students might be well seasoned at filling in bubbles and answering the specific questions we tell them are on the test, but they've lost the ability to think critically, they can't brainstorm, they can't entertain complex intellectual discussions. All subjects that weren't on the tests were pushed aside, focused on less. Some schools cut funding for extracurriculars, for sports, for language arts, for anything that wasn't on the tests. The quality of student writing has gone downhill significantly. Schools aren't focusing on grammar and syntax anymore, they are more worried about reading comprehension because it's on the tests. Students can use a computer for anything in the world except adequate research. Even in the areas that we might think objective testing would suit students - math and science, we are slipping. These teachers are seeing first hand the effect of a decade of this system on students, but no one is listening to them.

Why? Why aren't we listening to the veteran teachers who are warning us?

They see it. They know that we aren't teaching kids to think anymore. We're teaching them to pass tests, because we're now tying teacher ability to the grades the kids get on the tests. We're focusing so much on getting the lowest level learners to pass so that we create the appearance of growth that we aren't pushing the highest level learners the way they should be, the way they need to be. We are laboring under this illusion that all students can and should learn the same things at the same rates, then testing them as though it could ever be true.

And we're doing it because if we don't, our federal funding will be cut. Teachers are doing it because their livelihoods depend on it. If they don't get kids to jump through the hoops, their jobs might be in jeopardy.

All this ignores the 500 lb. elephant in the room - which is this: in education, we cannot control the inputs into the system. The teachers, the administrators, the districts have no control over which students walk through their doors. Those kids bring their home life situations, their socio-economic statuses, their poverty, their hunger, their primary language, their learning disabilities, their mental health conditions, their intelligence levels, their parents and the level of involvement they are willing to put in, their realities. None of that is subject to the control of the school system, but we want to believe that we can hold the schools accountable for test scores in a situation where the vast majority of conditions contributing to how a child learns are entirely outside anyone's control.

The system is a mess, and instead of allowing individual districts discretion in how to best deal with the situations they face, instead of funding school lunches and providing transportation universally, instead of trying to eliminate some of the real-life impacts facing these students, and in turn the districts they belong to, we are focusing on outputs alone. Numbers.

And we're doing it more and more and more. 

Under President Obama, yet another federal input was enacted affecting education. This one, called the Race to the Top program is an incentive based program that gives districts money based on innovation, lifting restrictions on charter schools, test scores, performance reviews and compliance with Common Core standards. Districts don't have to apply for the money, states do not have to participate, but when faced with the reality that per pupil funding seems to go down almost constantly, most did submit applications. Only those with the most points were awarded money.

Don't comply = no money. It is sold as an incentive system, but it's really punitive in nature.

The program and its funding were a way to basically force compliance with Common Core standards. What is Common Core? I'm sure that most of you have heard the phrase, but there isn't a whole lot of information out there that presents it objectively. I'll do my best. Deep breath.

Common Core, in theory, is completely sound. It's the idea that all students, in every state in the nation should be taught and learn the same basic material at each grade level, particularly in math and English. It is easy to see how this idea is a logical one, particularly for students who have to move between districts or even states during their school careers. It makes more sense for all fifth graders to learn certain topics than for schools to pick and choose which grade those topics are covered in. 

Having said all that, just because it is sound in theory doesn't mean that the execution of the theory is working well. It seems to be going smoothly in some areas, not so much in others. I'm also a born skeptic, so I always ask the question of who initiates something and who stands to gain. 

The standards were written, put out into the world and quickly adopted by most states, lauded as progress. Now that they are beginning to be enacted through changes in curriculum, teachers and parents are waving their hands in protest. 

The standards themselves were written by a panel of 27 people, including just a few teachers and composed mostly the representatives of the testing industry. Wait? What? The people who stand to benefit directly from the technologies being required wrote the standards? 

There was no transparency involved, something usually critical to education in particular. The Department of Education is expressly forbidden from writing or recommending curriculum, so the funding for the creation of the standards was all provided by private funders. The Gates Foundation footed the bill and invited many groups to evaluate the standards, except many of the evaluators weren't in the business of education or evaluation at all. 

Sold to teachers unions as a way to ensure that all students were being taught the same material, it was viewed by many as almost a civil rights issue, which garnered support from many within the educational world. Then the standards were adopted by legislatures sight unseen in most states. The vast majority of elected officials have no experience in education.

Anyone sensing who has the real motivation now?

If you guessed it was the testing industry, the curriculum industry, the tech industry, you'd be correct. If you guessed that major industries are the ones supporting it, that the Chamber of Commerce supports it, you'd be right too.

This year, many of the Common Core requirements are being rolled out in districts around the nation, now stuck with them as a condition of that Race to the Top funding they received. With no choice but to implement the changes, curricula have been changed significantly. 

Think about it. If the same math books have always worked, then no one would need to buy a new one. If we change the standards, add some "new math" to the tests, force it onto the curricula, guess who needs to buy new materials?

What has resulted are math homework sheets being sent home all over the country that have parents scratching their heads. In some attempt to teach children to think critically, we are unnecessarily complicating even the simplest arithmetic. Well, it sells books. (Told you guys I am cynical)

Perhaps even more concerning than the changes to the curricula that are the most obvious so far, usually the math worksheets, are the early results of the tests being administered.

They are quite literally setting them up to fail. 

This program, being implemented for the so-called benefit of students, is setting them up to fail. On purpose.

The Common Core standards are supposed to set goals, based on grade level. They are not supposed to dictate curriculum, but the reality is that in many places they are being implemented almost word for word. The standards written by this group of 27 mostly-industry people, aren't even subject to revision or changes if instructors find fault with them. They just are what they are.

So then, what can we do?

If you're a parent who has sat at a kitchen table and tried to help your child with math homework this year, you know that this isn't working already. You've seen it up close and personal. 

What can we do?

We can approach our school boards with our concerns. We can write our representatives and request that states either reject Common Core or adopt standards that comply with the requirements of Common Core, but allow for modification and flexibility as well. We can urge funding for the arts and the extracurricular classes that enrich the lives of our students and provide some of them with the only real motivation to stay in school. We can become involved with what our children are learning and how they are being taught. We can talk to their teachers, we can ask questions. 

I know that with my children, the math in particular has presented issues already. What should be important is providing children with alternatives, with different approaches, with ways to solve the problems - then we should let them figure out which one works best for them. We shouldn't be forcing all of them to learn to do everything in the most complicated way possible for the simple fact that some of them won't be able to understand it. Some of them need the alternatives. Teaching isn't about dictating how to learn, it is about providing kids with the tools to find their own solutions. 

We need to push for adaptations in the testing and instruction for kids who need more help, who learn in other ways. We need to understand that children learn in different ways, at different speeds, and that it is okay. 

We also need to stop believing that all children need to hit the same goals for school in the first place. Not everyone will go to college. Not everyone should go to college. We absolutely need schools to teach all those children life skills, to teach them job skills, to give them alternatives that might come in the form of all the classes not tested - the auto shop classes, the wood working classes, the home economics classes, the personal finance courses, the family life classes, the arts classes, the music classes. You can't tell me that those are any less important than math and writing, when in fact the opposite is true.

Our education system is broken, but it can be repaired. It can be repaired only if we stand together and fight against this corporate intrusion, these mandates that serve to benefit no children, but line the pockets of the testing industry.

One common suggestion is to unlink the CC standards from the testing, which could actually address many of the concerns people have expressed.

This is our future, this is the future for our children. 

Let's do all those things that the federal programs promise. Let's refuse to leave children behind. Let's race to the top. 

But let's do it the right way. By letting teachers teach again. By giving districts the money they need without tying it to some artificial measure of growth. By supporting the people on the ground, the teachers in the classroom. 

Reach out to the teachers in your life. Tell them you support them. 

Then do it.


  1. Yours is the first Common Core post that is sensible and doesn't have me grabbing for a tinfoil hat.

    Thank you voice of reason.

    1. Thank you.I try to present all the issues fairly.

  2. Sharing... while I don't agree with keeping Common Core... I do agree with just about everything else you've said. Well done. :-)

    1. Oh, I would be fine with getting rid of it, trust me.

  3. And we all bowed down to the Queen! Very well put. And all the points were covered.

  4. Thank you for this! This is exactly how I feel about it too, great concept but poor execution. Thank you for writing this, I love it.

  5. My mom is a retired teacher in Kentucky and common core has her up in arms and she is upset to see creative teaching go to the way side. What hit home for me most, personally, was "life skills". I follow close on what my grandchildren are learning in school and "the new way" just makes me sad. I think back to a lot of the classes (elementary grade level) that my Mom taught. She always provided different ways for children to learn..not every child learns the same way, and that always made me proud. Teachers don't seem to have that luxury now. Thank you for writing this, I agree with everything you said.

    1. We need to definitely teach kids the things they will need out there in the real world.

  6. I agree with almost everything here. Where I disagree is the future. We are getting to a place where, without the critical faculties for managing bus fare over wages, we will end up with nothing but unteachable, unskilled labor emerging from high school. After that, we will have to import all our engineers, scientists, and college might be a thing of the past.

    1. Totally agree. We need to stop believing that every child should go to college and provide ample training opportunities for all the careers out there that are losing qualified people.

  7. As a former elementary teacher who's been out of the business for ten years and is currently getting her teaching certificate renewed, I'm wondering if I should bother to pay attention to this at all. Obviously we have been talking about it in my classes, but it just seems like yet another way to try to make education and educators accountable for children who are constantly changing in their circumstances and life situations. I completely agree that it is a great idea that the whole nation get on the same page, but some states have a long way to go before they are even at the same level as others. In another decade, it will be on to the next idea. Just let teachers teach and sculpt young minds who can think for themselves.

    1. The burden on teachers is completely unfair, and every time that another law like this is passed, it shifts more and more responsibility to the teachers. Just let them teach, I say!

  8. Once again, you blow my mind. You have such a gift. Your words are so articulate and your research is stellar. Thank you so much for bringing issues like this to the forefront. We should all be talking about this and few parents I know are. Let our teachers, TEACH! :)

    1. We absolutely need to support our teachers and be vocal advocates for them as well. Not enough people are doing that, and it seems like too many people are reacting to CC with their guts instead of actually finding out what it is about and what it will do. CC is entirely sound in theory, we just need to deal with the application of it differently.

  9. Excellent and informative post on the education of children. "But let's do it the right way. By letting teachers teach again. By giving districts the money they need without tying it to some artificial measure of growth. By supporting the people on the ground, the teachers in the classroom." I totally agree with your post.

  10. Well put! :) I teach students with special needs. Many of who, are put through grueling hours of standardized testings using the "AIMS A" (Arizona's version of an alternate standardized test; mostly used for students with cognitive delays). This has to be the most stressful part of teaching for me. It takes away useful time (not hours--days) that I could be spending with my students working on social skills, community service, life skills etc. things that will actually be benefical for them. This test usually takes atleast half a day *per student*, and some of my students are not capable of answering the questions at all. It is crazy!


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