Common Core Watch

Morgan Polikoff
Test
In spite of poor policy design and implementation, NCLB has kids learning more.
Photo by Old Shoe Woman

The anti-testing and accountability drumbeat is constant: A once-rich curriculum has been narrowed to English and math. The arts have been squeezed out. Teachers are teaching to the test. There's no time for recess. And No Child Left Behind is to blame.

These claims are coming not only from the typical anti-test crowd but, increasingly, also from state legislators, governors, and even reformers.

That’s because while some of these claims are probably overblown, many of them are true. Our failure to evolve NCLB and its accountability policies has led to a host of negative unintended consequences, including the aforementioned, the myopic focus on "bubble kids" just below the proficiency cut, and the endless gaming of state tests. But what too few leaders seem willing to admit is that these problems are eminently fixable.

Even more importantly, they are worth fixing. While many would have us believe that there is no value in standards- and accountability-driven reform, the reality is this: In spite of poor policy design and implementation, the vast majority of the high-quality research on standards and accountability policies in general and NCLB in particular finds they've had some positive intended consequences. Chiefly, ...

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This post is adapted from comments delivered at the Manhattan Institute’s Curriculum Counts! event.

Classroom
If Common Core is really going to "change everything," we must focus on what these standards mean for teaching and learning.
Photo by horizontal.integration

Broadly speaking, there are two categories of school reform: systemic reform and classroom-level reform.

Systemic reforms are those aimed at reimagining school systems, and they include things like charter schools, vouchers, portfolio districts, and even accountability and some systemic teacher-evaluation policies. Classroom-level reforms, by contrast, are those aimed at actually changing what happens in the classroom. They focus, for example, on changing what is taught, how it is taught, or even how student mastery of essential content and skills is measured.

Over the past decade, education reformers have focused the lion’s share of our attention on systemic reform—to the point where conversations about Common Core implementation are often even dominated by how the standards will impact things like state accountability, teacher evaluation, certification, and on.

Of course, those are all important. But if Common Core is really going to “change everything,” we need first and foremost to focus on what these new standards mean for teaching and learning.

Yet, in many ways, the classroom is a black box to systemic reformers. While many leaders have made it their business...

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Donald Campbell was an American social psychologist and noted experimental social science researcher who did pioneering work on methodology and program evaluation. He has also become—posthumously—an unlikely hero of the anti-testing and accountability movement in the United States. In the hands of accountability critics, his 50 years of research on methodology and program evaluation have been boiled down to a simple retort against testing: Campbell’s Law. But a deeper reading of his work reveals a more complicated and constructive message: Measuring progress (using both quantitative and qualitative indicators) is essential; when using quantitative data for evaluation, the indicators can become distorted or manipulated; and there are concrete steps we can—and must—take to minimize data manipulation and distortion.

Campbell’s December 1976 article, “Assessing the Impact of Planned Social Change,” has become a flashpoint in the educational accountability debate. There, he argued,

The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."

Foes of testing and accountability frequently evoke this “Law” to argue against the use of standardized tests and test-based accountability. In a May 25 blog post, for example, Diane Ravitch explained:

Campbell’s Law helps us understand why No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top are harmful to education…As high-stakes testing has become the main driver of our nation’s education policy, we will see more cheating, more narrowing of...
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A new report on state-level implementation of Common Core merits some attention—but less for its top-line findings and more for how it confirms what I’m now calling the “Common Core Implementation Gap.”

That’s the miles of daylight between the platitudes about the new standards’ “dramatic,” “transformational” nature and the distressing reality of implementation.

The report’s upside is that we now know more about state-level planning. The downside is that we know nothing more about the quality of that planning—and this is the whole ball of wax.

We’ve made the necessary oblations to Common Core, and now it’s time to get serious about the seriousness of implementation.

This might sound like the classic unfair criticism of a research project—point out what you wanted a study to answer and then shame the authors for looking into something else.

I’m succumbing to this temptation because I’m troubled by all of the Common Core cheerleading going on. Apart from a still relatively small band criticizing the standards for stealing fiction and states’ rights, most reformers contend that Common Core is just shy of avert-your-eyes miraculous.

Tom Loveless had the temerity to wonder if the standards would improve achievement, and the response from their incredulous supporters was, said Loveless, “like putting my hand in a hornet’s nest.”

We’ve made the necessary oblations to Common Core, and now it’s time to get serious about the seriousness of implementation. That means no longer marveling at the shiny hubcaps and supple leather interior or, worse, just...

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Jennifer Borgioli
Teaching
Standardized testing and engaging pedagogy are not mutually exclusive.
Photo by woodleywonderworks

Across the United States and beyond, the anti-testing movement seems to be reaching its crescendo. Yet the case against testing is remarkably weak, resting on a foundation of four fundamental misunderstandings of the role that assessments play in our schools.

Myth #1: Teachers’ instincts should guide instruction

Perhaps the most common anti-testing refrain is that we should get out of the way and just “let teachers teach.” The idea is that teachers know best and that standardized testing—or any kind of testing, really, other than the teacher-built kind—is a distracting nuisance that saps valuable instructional time, deflects instructors from what’s most essential, and yields very little useful information about student learning.

What you don’t often hear is how research has consistently demonstrated that, absent independent checks, many teachers hold low-income and minority students to different standards than their affluent, white peers. This bias is rarely intentional, but it has been found time and time again.

Standardized tests not only help us unearth these biases but also put the spotlight on achievement gaps that need to be closed, students who need extra help, schools that are struggling, and on. And by doing so, they drive critical conversations about the curriculum, pedagogy, and state and district policies that we need to...

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Reading
Photo by Pesky Library.

While the lion’s share of the Common Core ELA implementation debate has focused on the precise proportion of time teachers should spend teaching fiction v. nonfiction in reading classes (see here and here), there is a far more critical discussion that has largely flown under the radar: the conversation about what the CCSS text-complexity guidance means for curriculum, instruction, and standards implementation.

Leveled literacy programs—like Lucy Calkins’s famed Reading and Writing Workshop—focus on assessing students’ reading levels and giving them “just right” books (those whose difficulty matches their independent or instructional reading level). Classrooms using leveled literacy programs typically have libraries with book bins labeled with a letter that corresponds with a reading level, and students choose from the “appropriate” bin for independent reading or instruction.

Such programs are wildly popular—as evidence by the growing number of classrooms with leveled libraries and the growing number of teachers who use “guided reading” programs or who follow the “workshop” model.

Unfortunately for students, the popularity of these programs is not driven by convincing research proving their effectiveness. In fact, as noted literacy expert Tim Shanahan discussed in a series of must-read posts on his blog nearly two years ago,

I have sought studies that would support the original contention that we could facilitate...
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Science
While nobody should be satisfied with America's overall performance in science education, it's possible to make it even worse.
Photo by Atli Harðarson

(Updated February 7, 2013 for the Education Gadfly Weekly)

The public-comment period ended last week on draft 2.0 of the forthcoming “Next Generation Science Standards,” under development by Achieve, umpteen other organizations, and some two dozen states and promised for release in final form next month. Once released, states will be invited to consider adopting them, much like the Common Core for English and math.

Now ‘til March is not much time to repair this important, ambitious, but still seriously troubled document. The drafters might be wise to take more.

We at the Fordham Institute have a long history of reviewing state science standards, and last week, we submitted our review, feedback, and comments on NGSS 2.0. A team of nine eminent scientists, mathematicians, and educators, prepared our analysis. You can find the full review here, including team members’ bios on page 8. (We previously reviewed Draft 1.0, and Dr. Paul R. Gross, the distinguished biologist who heads the team, also reviewed the National Research Council “framework” on which NGSS is based.)

If states are going to make rational decisions to replace their own science standards with NGSS, it’s only right...

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Assessments
Tests in use from Kindergarten through eleventh grade need to have cut scores that denote true readiness for the next grade and that culminate to "college and career readiness."
Photo by albertogp123

As the U.S. education world eagerly awaits more information about the new assessments that two consortia of states are developing to accompany the Common Core standards, dozens of perplexing and important questions have arisen: Once the federal grants run out, how will these activities be financed? What will it cost states and districts to participate? Who will govern and manage these massive testing programs? What about the technology infrastructure? The list goes on.

The assessment questions that weigh most heavily on my mind these days, however, involve “cut scores.” For if the Common Core is truly intended to yield high school graduates who are college and career ready, its assessments must be calibrated to passing scores that colleges and employers will accept as the levels of skill and knowledge that their entrants truly need to possess. Adequately equipping young people cannot wait ‘til twelfth grade, nor can the assessment sequence. The tests in use from Kindergarten through eleventh grade need to have passing scores that denote true readiness for the next grade and that cumulate to “college and career readiness.”

That’s a daunting challenge for any test maker, but it’s further...

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Reindeer
Finland: Land of reindeer, snow, and a world-class education system.
Photo from RukaKuusamo.com via photopin cc.

Finland—the tiny land of reindeer, snow, and more snow—burst onto the scene in the past decade as the unlikely poster child for the anti-reform movement in the United States. Hardly a week goes by that someone doesn’t implore reformers to learn from Finland—a nation with low poverty, high achievement, and virtually no standardized tests—and abandon our support for standards- and accountability-driven reform. After all, Finland’s education system today is characterized by loose central regulations, broad teacher curricular and instructional autonomy, and virtually no centralized accountability. Given Finland’s success on international assessments, it must follow that American schools would do better if we Xeroxed the Finland model.

Right?

Not exactly.

First, there has been at least some evidence of late suggesting that Finland’s successes may not be as miraculous as once thought. But more than that, to understand what is going on in Finland, its perhaps important to start not with a snapshot of their test scores and existing education structures but, rather, with a November 2010 McKinsey study entitled, “How the world’s most improved school systems keep getting better.”

As part of their research, McKinsey studied twenty school systems from around the world that had seen “significant,...

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Earlier this year, the GE Foundation awarded an $18 million, four-year grant to Student Achievement Partners—the group co-founded by the chief CCSS architects David Coleman, Sue Pimentel, and Jason Zimba—to support (among other things) the development of Common Core–aligned curriculum and instructional resources. In addition to being developed under the careful guidance of the lead authors of the standards themselves (and all signs seem to suggest that these materials will be top-notch), SAP-developed resources will be open source and provided at no cost to teachers around the country.

This week, Student Achievement Partners announced a new partnership with the NEA and AFT, which will be funded with a three-year, $11 million grant from The Leona M. and Harry B. Helmsley Charitable Trust, “to jointly design tools and digital applications to support teachers in their practice.”

Here’s what Sue Pimentel told Education Week:

…The New York City–based nonprofit would be "the engine room" for the new project, but teachers would be the fuel behind it. It will cover both ELA and math.
SAP will meet regularly with teachers to find out what they need most in the classroom, and come back to them with early versions that can then be reviewed and revised, Pimentel said. Teachers from the two unions will also play a key role by piloting the tools in their classrooms next year, she said. The tools will be available on SAP's website, Achieve The Core, and NEA and AFT websites, she said.

Given...

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