Common Core Watch

On September 9th, the Fordham Institute’s Mike Petrilli participated in an Intelligence Squared U.S. debate on the Common Core. These are his opening comments, as prepared for delivery.

Over the past four years on this blog, I’ve strived to advance a substantive conversation around standards and assessment through complex (and hopefully interesting) policy arguments. But finding new things to advance a discussion sometimes means losing sight of large and obvious things that need to be said over and over again. So, in my first post since returning to the world of schools, I want to make a completely obvious point: standards-aligned, summative tests are really, really important to providing students—especially our most disadvantaged students—with the education they deserve.

Yet, in the increasingly acerbic debate over school reform, these kinds of state-driven standardized tests have become an easy scapegoat for everything that ails education policy broadly and standards-driven reform more specifically. Indeed, with all the political capital being spent to save Common Core, opponents of the accountability side of standards-and-accountability-driven reform have seized an opportunity to push back against statewide testing mandates—to throw the tests under the bus in order to “save” the standards.

Leading the charge are, perhaps unsurprisingly, the nation’s largest teachers unions, who’ve long pushed back on the notion that assessment data should be a factor in school and/or teacher accountability. This summer, the NEA capitalized on the anti-CCSS momentum to launch a targeted campaign against “toxic testing.” And NEA president Lily Eskelsen García went as far as saying that that state CCSS-aligned tests are “corrupting the Common Core” and that they are made by people who “don’t have a clue” what they’re doing.

Adding insult to injury, a Florida school district voted to opt out of state tests last week. (They’ve since rescinded their decision, but the anti-test gauntlet has been thrown.)

While...

One of the arguments I’ve long made in support of Common Core is that properly understood and implemented, it’s a delivery mechanism for the ideas and work of E. D. Hirsch, Jr., and the Core Knowledge curriculum he created.

It’s gratifying—and, alas, too rare—when others connect the dots. But here is Politico, out with its list of fifty “thinkers, doers and dreamers who really matter.” Sharing number eight on the list is Hirsch and David Coleman, the principal author of the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts.

Hirsch’s work and output span decades, but a principal thrust of his ideas can be summarized thusly: reading comprehension is not a “skill” we can teach directly, practice, or master. It is not like riding a bike, where if you learn on one you can ride another with ease. Once you learn to “decode” the words on a page, your ability to read with understanding is largely a reflection of how much knowledge and vocabulary you have and share with the writer.

If schools understood and embraced this well-grounded insight, American education—and elementary education specifically—would look very different. There would be a lot less “question the author” and “find the main idea.” Instead you’d see teachers (especially those who work with our poorest children) restored, in David Coleman’s lovely and apt phrase, “to their rightful place as guides to the universe.” You’d see big chunks of the K-5 school day handed over to science, history, geography, and the arts, rather than held hostage by massive “reading blocks” that are typically content-free zones.

The pairing of Hirsch and Coleman by Politico is significant. You will not find Hirsch’s name in the Standards, but his thumbprints are there if you care to look. As Coleman notes in the Politico piece,...

Neal P. McCluskey

Over the past couple of years, a raucous debate has emerged over the Common Core, content standards in English and mathematics adopted by states nationwide. The debate has been marked by acrimony rather than analysis, but there is hope that both sides want a reset.

In NRO today, Rick Hess explores “five half-truths” that he says supporters of the Common Core like to propagate. These spurred five questions of my own:

  1. You dispute that the Common Core standards are “evidenced based” because “what the Common Core’s authors did falls well short of what ‘evidence-based’ typically means.” By your definition, would any set of standards be considered evidence-based? Such as those previously in place in the states? Or any set of education standards one might develop in the future? (Or, for that matter, in myriad other fields?) If no, then what’s your point? Do you think we should abandon standards-based reform?
  2. Relatedly, would you consider elements of the Common Core to be evidence-based? Such as their focus on scientifically-based reading instruction in the early grades, or the demand for fluency in arithmetic, or the admonition to delay calculator use? Would you disagree that those decisions were based on evidence? Do you think states should go back to standards that don’t include these evidence-based expectations?
  3. You complain that the Common Core standards don’t include calculus. Do you think states should expect all students to learn calculus? If not, where would you set the bar for “college and career ready”? 
  4. You say that it’s hard to judge the “rigor” of standards. OK. So do you think other standards are more rigorous than the Common Core? Ohio, for example, is having a debate about whether it should repeal the Common Core and deploy the old Massachusetts standards instead. Do you think the old Massachusetts standards were more rigorous than the Common Core? Or is it impossible to know?
  5. You call us at the Fordham Institute “avidly pro-Common Core.” Do you think it’s possible that we are “avidly pro-Common Core” precisely because we think the standards are so strong? We
  6. ...

It’s too soon to guess TIME Magazine’s person of the year, but a clear favorite has emerged for Common Core person of the year: the man, woman, or group that has done the most to advance the adoption and implementation of Common Core State Standards in the U.S.

Ladies and gentleman, for meritorious service to further the cause of rigorous academic standards and educational excellence, please put your hands together for the governor of the great state of Louisiana, Common Core Man of the Year, Bobby Jindal!”

I have a complicated relationship with testing. I refuse to pretend that it’s caused no mischief in our schools—narrowing curriculum, encouraging large amounts of ill-conceived test prep, and making school a joyless grind for too many teachers and students alike—but neither can any fair-minded analyst deny that there have been real if modest gains in our present era of test-driven accountability, especially for low-income black and Hispanic children, particularly in the early grades.

What to make, then, of Secretary Duncan’s widely heralded concession that testing is “sucking the oxygen out of the room in a lot of schools” and his offer to states of a year-long delay in making test scores part of their evaluation systems?

“There’s wide recognition that annual assessments—those required by federal law—have done much to shine a light on the places and groups of students most in need of help. Yet in too many places, it’s clear that the yardstick has become the focus,” Duncan wrote in a lengthy blog post Thursday.

We at Fordham have been among those pleading for some reasonable flexibility in this area, particularly as new standards and assessments kick in, so the secretary’s message is welcome. Some states don’t want to shift gears, but others crave a breather while curriculum and pedagogy catch up with newly rigorous expectations. (We’ll save for another day an examination of the constitutional aspects of all this, as Duncan’s department evidently will be offering states waivers from conditional waivers, the statutory basis for which has long been in doubt.)

But what about testing over the long run? Duncan’s soul-searching and candor are laudable and refreshing, but will they do more than defer a larger reckoning on testing’s place in American education? “I want our department to be part of the solution,”...

Morgan Polikoff

Nearly all American K–12 students are exposed to it every day. It decides, in large part, what students will learn in school and how they will learn it. It is never evaluated for quality in any serious way, but when it is rigorously evaluated, its impact on student achievement is significant.

Results from the annual Education Next poll are out this week, and the news is not good for us proponents of the Common Core. Support among the public dropped from 65 percent to 53 percent in just one year (from June 2013 to June 2014); Republicans are now almost evenly split on the issue, with 43 percent in support, and 37 percent opposed. What’s more...

With the release last week of half of the test questions from the most recent round of New York State Common Core ELA/Literacy and math tests, we can now begin to see if the tests are, as one New York principal insisted last spring, “confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards.”

Do the charges stick? After a quick analysis of the released items, on the charge of “confusing,” I find the tests (at least somewhat) guilty. Not well aligned with the Common Core standards? Not guilty. Developmentally inappropriate? That charge should never have been brought in the first place.

Calling Common Core “developmentally inappropriate” has become something of a blanket criticism, but it’s largely irrelevant. University of Virginia cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has repeatedly cautioned against invoking the idea of developmental stages to draw strong conclusions about what children are ready for. “Hard” and “developmentally inappropriate” are not synonyms.

Critics are on firmer footing describing some test items as confusing. The first passage on the fifth-grade reading test was “My Grandma Talley,” a short story by Nadine Oduor that makes frequent use of vernacular language. Unfamiliar words like “frettin’,” “lotta” (a lot of), and “doodlebug” and idiomatic language like “wet behind the ears” could easily trip up young readers. Dialect is not the same as the archaic language typically found in historical documents, which have been heavily signaled as important under Common Core.

Following the passage, one question asks students to interpret what the narrator’s grandmother meant when she used a potentially unfamiliar expression:

The answer draws a subtle difference between A (correct) and C (incorrect). Frankly, if a fifth grader in a classroom discussion interpreted the phrase to mean they would be able to...

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