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Before You Rage, Get the Facts Straight on Common Core

This weekend, the New York Times published an op-ed by David L. Kirp, a professor of public policy at the University of California, Berkeley, in which Kirp portrays the rollout of the Common Core State Standards as “mishandled” and attempts to use it as an opportunity to blame the Obama administration. While Ann Whalen questions his conclusions on our blog, we wanted to make sure to get the facts straight here:
Starting in the mid-1990s, education advocates began making a simple argument: National education standards will level the playing field, assuring that all high school graduates are prepared for first-year college classes or rigorous career training. While there are reasons to doubt that claim—it’s hard to see how Utah, which spends less than one-third as much per student as New York, can offer a comparable education—the movement took off in 2008, when the nation’s governors and education commissioners drove a huge effort to devise “world-class standards,” now known as the Common Core. Kudos for accurately pointing out the parties who actually led the development of the Common Core. Although the Obama administration didn’t craft the standards, it weighed in heavily, using some of the $4.35 billion from the Race to the Top program to encourage states to adopt not only the Common Core (in itself, a good thing) but also frequent, high-stakes testing (which is deeply unpopular). The mishandled rollout turned a conversation about pedagogy into an ideological and partisan debate over high-stakes testing. The misconception that standards and testing are identical has become widespread. FALSE. Federal mandate on testing has not changed since 2001. Also: Who “mishandled” the rollout? Feds, states or schools? What’s the evidence? At least four states that adopted the Common Core have opted out. Republican governors who initially backed the standards condemn them as “shameless government overreach.” Gov. Bobby Jindal of Louisiana, a Republican and a onetime supporter of the Common Core, sued his own state and the United States Department of Education to block the standards from taking effect. When Jeb Bush, the former Florida governor, recently announced his decision to “actively explore” a 2016 run for the White House, he ran into a buzz saw of opposition because of his embrace of the Common Core. Rebellions have also sprouted in Democratic-leaning states. Last spring, between 55,000 and 65,000 New York State students opted out of taking tests linked to the Common Core. Criticizing these tests as “unproven,” the Chicago schools chief, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, declared that she didn’t want her students to take them. (1) These NY opt-out numbers are inflated. More than 10,400 of those who didn’t take the math test were 8th graders who took a high school-level math Regents exam instead, thanks to a new state policy meant to AVOID overtesting. Less than one-half of one percent opted out. (2) FALSE: Byrd-Bennett never said she didn’t want her students to take the tests. In a Phi Delta Kappa/Gallup poll conducted last spring, 57 percent of public school parents opposed “having teachers in your community use the Common Core State Standards to guide what they teach,” nearly double the proportion of those who supported the goals. With the standards, the sheer volume of high-stakes standardized testing has ballooned. “The numbers and consequences of these tests have driven public opinion over the edge,” notes Robert A. Schaeffer of the National Center for Fair and Open Testing, known as FairTest. Students are terrified by these tests because the results can jeopardize their prospects for advancement and graduation. In New York, the number of students who scored “proficient” plummeted by about 30 percentage points in 2013, the first year of testing. Some 70 percent scored below the cutoff level in math and English; the 2014 results in math were modestly better, but the English language scores didn’t budge. Inaccurate. The Regents delayed consequences for graduation for 5 years. AND NY students have multiple options. Many teachers like the standards, because they invite creativity in the classroom—instead of memorization, the Common Core emphasizes critical thinking and problem-solving. But they complain that test prep and test-taking eat away weeks of class time that would be better focused on learning. In SOME places overtesting and test prep is a problem, but the majority of tests are driven by districts and schools. A Gallup poll found that while 76 percent of teachers favored nationwide academic standards for reading, writing and math, only 27 percent supported using tests to gauge students’ performance, and 9 percent favored making test scores a basis for evaluating teachers. Such antagonism is well founded—researchers have shown that measurements of the “value” teachers add, as determined by comparing test scores at the beginning and end of the year, are unreliable and biased against those who teach both low- and high-achieving students. Some research does postulate concern, but other research and responses dispute this theory. The Obama administration has only itself to blame. Most Democrats expected that equity would be the top education priority, with more money going to the poorest states, better teacher recruitment, more useful training and closer attention to the needs of the surging population of immigrant kids. How is equity NOT a priority? The Equity Commission? 6 years of unprecedented activity from the Office of Civil Rights? The president’s last two budgets? Also: ARRA sent billions out to states BASED on poverty numbers. Instead, the administration has emphasized high-stakes “accountability” and market-driven reforms. The Education Department has invested more than $370 million to develop the new standards False. No federal funds went into developing the new standards. and exams in math, reading and writing. Questioning those priorities can bring reprisals. During the search earlier this year for a New York City schools chancellor, Education Secretary Arne Duncan lobbied against Joshua P. Starr, the superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Md., in part because he had proposed a three-year hiatus on high-stakes standardized testing. Last year, Mr. Duncan said that opposition to the Common Core standards had come from “white suburban moms who realize—all of a sudden—their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” He has only recently changed his cavalier tune, acknowledging, “Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy and cause unnecessary stress.” (1) Duncan has a point. College-ready standards reveal what college remediation and completion rates confirm: Many suburban kids aren’t prepared for college. (2) Be careful not to conflate OVERtesting with standards and the rigor of the tests themselves. It’s no simple task to figure out what schools ought to teach and how best to teach it—how to link talented teachers with engaged students and a challenging curriculum. Turning around the great gray battleship of American public education is even harder. It requires creating new course materials, devising and field-testing new exams and, because these tests are designed to be taken online, closing the digital divide. It means retraining teachers, reorienting classrooms and explaining to anxious parents why these changes are worthwhile. Had the public schools been given breathing room, with a moratorium on high-stakes testing that prominent educators urged, resistance to the Common Core would most likely have been less fierce. Let’s remember that new standards were adopted in 2010 by most states, over 4 years ago. ALSO—states were offered and many applied and received such waivers from testing. But in states where the opposition is passionate and powerful, it will take a herculean effort to get the standards back on track.

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