Gina Hamilton

Gina Hamilton

As states move toward a common educational standard, there are a lot of questions about the process. Some of the questions are valid, and even concerning; others are nonsense. But every Facebook meme seems to suggest that Common Core will decimate education as we know it. That’s ridiculous.

The standards are basically good. There are numerous places where one can read the standards; interested readers can see them all at standards.

First, the goal of Common Core is laudable — to make sure that every student in the U.S., upon graduating, is prepared for first year college classes or rigorous career training. To that end, the states that opted in worked together with teachers, curriculum writers and others to produce a common group of standards. In general, the standards are reasonable and even challenging. They give colleges and other higher education institutions a framework for what their incoming freshmen should know and a good place to start. Students, whether they went to high school in Provo, Utah, or Mystic Seaport, Connecticut, could be assured of having the same basic skill set upon graduation. This was a very good thing.

What wasn’t such a good thing was the frequent, high-stakes testing that went along with the standards. The tests are stressful and can affect students’ prospects for advancement and graduation.

Teachers tend to like the standards; they don’t like the tests. A Gallup poll showed that 76 percent of the teachers favored the national standards for reading, writing and math, only 27 percent supported using the tests to demonstrate students’ performance, and only 9 percent favored making the test scores part of teacher evaluations.

In a world where we are mainstreaming children who are not capable of even holding a Number 2 pencil, let alone taking a test, using the tests as some kind of teacher measurement is unfair and dangerous. But it is also unfair to characterize schools using the tests.

For example, consider the case of two high schools in a given community. One, a public school that accepts students based on academic merit, such as a math and science magnet school, takes the same test as a school where the students go because they happen to live in the neighborhood. With the hand-picked students at the magnet school, the school and the teachers fare very well. They have no special needs children and they’ve skimmed the best students in math and science off the top. The students at the other local school have all the special needs children in the entire district. They’ve lost their top testers in mathematics.

Obviously, the neighborhood school is going to do more poorly than the magnet school. But there is nothing in the framework that looks at a school’s unique situation and corrects for it. The same is true when the school has a large number of students for whom English is a second language, or students who are homeless or dyslexic or have Down Syndrome. None of this is taken into account in the testing processes, and the schools with large numbers of these populations test at below proficiency, which means that they lose money if they can’t bring their students up to standards.

Most teachers expected that equity would be a top educational priority, with money going to poorer states, improvements in materials, stronger teacher recruitment, additional training and attention to the needs of kids who fall into special groups, such as immigrants or autistic children, or for that matter, gifted children. But instead, the Obama administration has emphasized the testing as a means of accountability, and allowed the markets to drive the reforms. In our example, the magnet school would get more highperforming kids, and more money than the neighborhood school.

A lot of money went into Common Core — more than $370 million to develop the new standards and the new exams. The exams still aren’t completely written, and many of them require taking on computers, which many poorer schools don’t have.

Last year, more than 55,000 students in New York State opted out of taking the Common Core tests, and in Chicago, the schools chief said she wouldn’t authorize time for students to take them, calling them “unproven.”

There is a major backlash across the country against Common Core. Both Democratic and Republican states have rebelled, with some states withdrawing altogether.

It’s a shame, because in many ways, the idea of the standards is good, and the goal is certainly rational. In Kentucky, for example, an early adopter of the standards, the high school graduation rate increased from 80 percent in 2010 to 86 percent in 2013. Test scores also increased.

But in other ways, we’ve seen this show before. We’ve just come off a decade of standards-based, test-driven education called “No Child Left Behind.” By any measure, NCLB was a dismal failure in raising academic performance. It managed to set rigorous standards no school had ever met, while blaming those who worked in the schools. In the first decade of the experiment, more than half of American schools were “failing.”

The best thing that could happen to this new list of very reasonable standards and generally well-written curriculum guides is to lose the testing component, at least for the first few years while teachers and students are getting used to them. Then test every few years, not every year, and make the final graduation exam based on general standards, rather than the higher Common Core standards, until students have had a chance to participate in all 12 years of the program.

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