For the past several years in Tennessee, we’ve been graduating students who weren’t truly prepared to succeed in college, despite adjusting the state standards multiple times. Now, as we’ve finally embarked on the one clear path we have to college preparation—the Common Core State Standards—we can’t afford to turn around. According to the results of the National Assessment Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2013, approximately 30 percent of 12th graders in Tennessee
were proficient in reading. In 2012, the
high school graduation rate in Tennessee was 87.2 percent. The numbers did not add up. It appeared that Tennessee graduated the vast majority of its students despite their inability to read at a college-ready level. How did this happen, and why does it continue? It’s worth noting that throughout schools in Tennessee, student test scores do not necessarily determine advancement to the next grade (scores are typically factored in as a large percentage of the grade), and even if these scores did determine grade-level promotion, these NAEP results might not change much. The standards we use to teach students and the state tests we assess them with are too easy. They allow students to score proficient or advanced in a subject they have not mastered, and then these same students graduate high school unprepared for college. Some
studies show as many as 60 percent of students need to take remedial courses in college. Could the implementation of the Common Core make this any better? Tennessee has answered in the affirmative. There were some hurdles that schools encountered, but they cleared them. Did my students’ state test scores drop when we transitioned to the Common Core? Yes, because I was no longer teaching directly to a multiple-choice test. Did their overall growth in reading and writing improve drastically? Yes. I taught what my students needed to know as readers and writers with my sights on the long term—something Tennessee might be able to learn from Kentucky,
which has successfully implemented Common Core and seen an uptick in ACT scores and college readiness. I was teaching students to write complex essays and to support their thoughts with proof from texts. I was teaching them skills they would need for years, not words they would need to know for days. The standards no longer include irrelevant, out-of-context material that might only show up on an eighth grade multiple-choice test (i.e., students must be able to define a random selection of foreign words such as
du jour). Instead, the standards are contextual and based on in-depth reading, close analysis, higher-order thinking skills, and supporting findings with evidence. This is, essentially, what students will need to be able to do in any subject in any class, college or job for the rest of their lives. As a teacher, I felt that Common Core gave me more freedom with what to teach and how to teach it; I never felt it was prescribed and am still mystified when this is alleged. The standards, in fact, are not proscriptive, leaving room for teachers and curriculum developers to be creative and authentic, developing units and lessons that bolster the rigor for students so they can be successful throughout life. Considering Kentucky’s success and the current implementation of Common Core in Tennessee, it only makes sense to move forward on the current path that began over four years ago. We have trained our teachers, redesigned our assessments and spent countless hours pushing our students further ahead. Teachers across the state have spent the last several years relearning and redeveloping these more rigorously aligned standards, curriculums and lesson plans, so why move in a different direction now? The path may be challenging, but it does not mean we should take an easier detour.
Liz Riggs is a writer and educational equity advocate who lives in Nashville, Tennessee.