Common Core Watch

A few weeks ago, the two groups charged with creating assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)?the?SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the?Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC)?released ?content specifications/frameworks? (guidelines that can helpful inform curriculum) for public review and feedback.

Below is an overview of the feedback I provided to SBAC. A previous post summarized the feedback I provided to PARCC on their ELA content frameworks. We would love to get your thoughts after reading the post, so please take time to add your comments below.

Overall, while SBAC has produced a clear and detailed document that will help teachers begin to align their curriculum, instruction, and assessment around CCSS, these content specifications raise some concerns about how faithful the SMARTER Balanced assessments will be to the spirit and purpose of the standards themselves. PARCC has not yet released detailed assessment specifications, so we can't yet say whether their plans will align more closely with the spirit of the CCSS. Hopefully they will more clearly outline an alternative assessment plan.

Purpose of the Framework

The SBAC content specifications ?are intended to ensure that the assessment system [being developed] accurately assesses the full range of the standards.? To that end, the framework specifies five ?critically important claims about student learning? that will ?serve as the basis for the Consortium's system of summative and interim assessments and its formative assessment support for teachers.? Those five claims are:...


Last June, the Wyoming Board of Education adopted the Common Core, making the Equality State one of the first states to do so. And implementation of the core standards has begun in earnest, with teachers around the state beginning to align their curriculum and instruction to the new standards.

Now it seems like Wyoming lawmakers are beginning to question the Board's decision and have actually told districts to ?slow down implementing standards not yet adopted.? (See here.)

In short, it seems that last year's adoption decision by the State Board did little more than include the Common Core ELA and math standards ?in the next revision of the Wyoming Content and Performance Standards,? which is currently underway. And those standards are still being vetted and changes can still be made through the end of this year. (See here for more.) And now lawmakers are starting to get cold feet and they're trying to decide whether the challenge the adoption decision writ large.

What's more, even if Wyoming does move forward the Common Core ELA and math standards, there is still some question about whether the state will opt to administer the assessments developed by one of the national assessment consortia, or whether it will opt to go it alone. (Wyoming joined the SMARTER Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) as a participating state, but has not yet fully committed to implement the assessment system.) Superintendent of Public Instruction, Cindy Hill, assures that "the Common Core standards will...


Adding fuel to a small but growing anti-Common Core fire, Andrew Porter penned an op-ed in Education Week this week that questioned the value and rigor of the Common Core ELA and math standards. He explains:

I hoped that new national curriculum standards would be better than the state standards they replaced, and that new student assessments would be better, too.

I wish I could say that our progress toward common-core standards has fulfilled my hopes. Instead, it seems to me that the common-core movement is turning into a lost opportunity.

His critique of the Common Core is grounded in a study that he and a team of U Penn researchers conducted that compared the both the topics covered and the ?cognitive demand? of the Common Core standards with the state standards they are going to replace. (According to Porter and his team, there are five categories of cognitive demand: memorize; perform procedures; demonstrate understanding; conjecture, generalize, prove; and solve non-routine problems. All objectives from the state and Common Core English Language Arts and math standards are grouped under one of these headings.)

Before even diving into a discussion of the substance of their analysis, the metric that Porter et al use is problematic. The researchers dive immediately into the weeds by dividing content into different topics and categorizing each objective under different headings. And, by doing so, Porter and his team lose sight of the forest for the trees.

Take, for example, a common...


Every so often educators and reformers think, if we're educating kids for the future, we need to do a better job of adapting our education system to meet the needs of tomorrow. That our education systems needs to, in some sense, ?get with the times? so that we can better serve our students today.

The latest argument to that effect comes from a book (Now You See It) written by Cathy N. Davidson and related blog post from Virginia Heffernan of the New York Times. In her piece, Heffernan argues:

??fully 65 percent of today's grade-school kids may end up doing work that hasn't been invented yet?For those two-thirds of grade-school kids, if for no one else, it's high time we redesigned American education.?

And so, because today's students will be doing things that we can't imagine, we need to rethink the kinds of work we're assigning today. Including research papers, which Heffernan argues have outlived their usefulness:

Teachers and professors regularly ask students to write papers. Semester after semester, year after year, ?papers? are styled as the highest form of writing. And semester after semester, teachers and professors are freshly appalled when they turn up terrible.

Ms. Davidson herself was appalled not long ago when her students at Duke, who produced witty and incisive blogs for their peers, turned in disgraceful, unpublishable term papers. But instead of simply carping about students with colleagues in the great faculty-lounge tradition, Ms. Davidson questioned the whole form


I've already wondered aloud (see here) whether states' quick adoption of the Common Core was more an example of people seeing what they wanted to see than evidence of some broad consensus about what the actual standards meant for curriculum, instruction, and assessment. An article in last week's Education Week does little to assuage those concerns.

The article focused on the CCSS ?publishers' criteria? that was recently released by David Coleman and Sue Pimentel. (See here and here for more.) For those who want to see the Common Core faithfully implemented, it raised two chief concerns.

First, Barbara Cambridge, the state director of NCTE's Washington chapter, criticized the publishers' criteria because she feels that they ?signal a usurpation of teacher judgment in ways that are alarming? and because she believes the document shortchanges ?the value of children's own experiences in responding to what they read.?

?The way we learn something new is to attach it to something we already know,? she said. ?So of course what kids bring to school isn't sufficient, but it's important. And to imply we shouldn't spend time on it, with 1st and 2nd graders, is just bad advice.?

Second, Barbara A. Kapinus of the NEA felt that the criteria veered too far into the world of pedagogy. Kapinus argued that, by saying that ?fluency should be a particular focus? of second grade reading programs,

?teachers [may] put a premium on it, despite the developmental variations in when children


Within weeks of the release of the Common Core State ELA and math standards, textbook publishers had already launched marketing campaigns for their ?CCSS-aligned? curriculum materials. What that label really meant, exactly, was open for much debate.

Enter David Coleman and Sue Pimentel. Last week, the two lead ELA writers for the CCSS ELA standards released ?Publishers' Criteria for the Common Core State Standards in English Language Arts and Literacy? for grades K-2 and 3-12 in an attempt to guide the curriculum writers who are genuinely trying to align their materials to the CCSS. It will also be an invaluable resource for teachers, schools, and districts who are trying to navigate the already crowded space of CCSS-aligned materials.

Coleman and Pimentel are careful to note that these criteria ?are not meant to dictate classroom practice,? but instead are ?intended to direct curriculum developers and publishers to be purposeful and strategic in both what to include and what to exclude in instructional materials.? In short, Coleman and Pimentel attempt to clarify what materials would be worthy of the ?CCSS-aligned? label.

While the guidelines do include criteria for everything ranging from writing and grammar to research, the bulk of the guidance is focused on reading. The authors note that, in order to be truly CCSS-aligned, reading materials must:

  • Include texts that are appropriately complex. The guidelines note that ?far too often, students who have fallen behind are given only less complex texts rather than the support they
  • ...

Film critic Roger Ebert penned a damning critique of the too-often-used practice of giving struggling students a retold version of a more complex literary classic. He talks in particular about The Great Gatsby. The entire article is worth reading, but his most salient point is this

There is no purpose in "reading" The Great Gatsby unless you actually read it. Fitzgerald's novel is not about a story. It is about how the story is told. Its poetry, its message, its evocation of Gatsby's lost American dream, is expressed in Fitzgerald's style--in the precise words he chose to write what some consider the great American novel. Unless you have read them, you have not read the book at all. You have been imprisoned in an educational system that cheats and insults you by inflicting a barbaric dumbing-down process. You are left with the impression of having read a book, and may never feel you need return for a closer look.

Ebert illustrates this point brilliantly by comparing, side-by-side, several parts of the book, including the conclusion, which in the "retold" version, is boiled down to this:

Gatsby had believed in his dream. He had followed it and nearly made it come true.
Everybody has a dream. And, like Gatsby, we must all follow our dream wherever it takes us.
Some unpleasant people became part of Gatsby's dream. But he cannot be blamed for that. Gatsby was a success, in the end, wasn't he?

As Ebert succinctly notes, "this is an...

About two weeks ago, a new Twitter hashtag was born: #povertymatters. For a little over a week, hundreds of people came up with 140-character tweets that were essentially one-line zingers aimed at the policymakers?they believe are ?blaming? teachers for ?low achievement in urban schools, while ignoring the impact poverty has on students' lives and learning. Two examples:

The crux of the argument is that, because we have so many children living in poverty, we can't possibly expect schools to close the achievement gap. Instead, we need to eliminate poverty?or treat the symptoms of poverty?first.

The implication, in short: stop asking so much of schools and teachers, these problems run deeper than they can be expected to solve.

Of course, the link between student achievement and socioeconomic status is unmistakable. Students who come from middle class or affluent families tend to start school ahead of their more disadvantaged peers. And, without serious, direct, and deliberate intervention, that gap only grows wider over time.

But saying we need to fix poverty before we can fix schools is like a doctor saying that he's going to wait until you get better before he treats...

In a quarterly meeting that took place late last week, the PARCC Assessment Consortium Governing Board has decided to eliminate the previously required "through-course" assessments. (States would have been required to administer two "through-course" assessments at different times during the year in addition to one end-of-year summative assessment.) The consortium had come under fire earlier this year by critics who feared that requiring "through-course" assessments was tantamount to prescribing a scope and sequence for all schools--traditional public and charter.

The through-course assessments have been replaced by two optional tests:

  1. An early assessment, that would be given early in the year and would be designed "to provide teachers with information that can serve as an early indicator of student status relative to the CCSS. It may be possible to design this component to also include information about whether students who did not achieve proficiency in their previous grade have made progress towards or have attained proficiency on those standards in their current year."
  2. A mid-year assessment that would include performance-based assessments that are designed to give "instructionally useful feedback to? teachers and students and help prepare them for the innovative assessment tasks" they will see on the required end of year assessment.

While both of these components are optional and the scores will not initially count towards a student's summative score, the consortium notes that "over time, states may consider including results of the mid-year assessments in summative scores."

The consortium will continue to require end-of-year...

Pam Allyn, a literacy expert and executive director of LitWorld, penned an opinion piece in Education Week entitled ?Against the Whole-Class Novel.? The crux of the article is that teachers should no longer assign one book to all students in a class but instead allow students to select books that are both at their individual (or instructional) reading level and that cover topics that most interest them.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="240" caption="Photo by Sarah Kennon"][/caption]

Allyn's argument?which is becoming a widely-held belief among literature teachers?is seductive in an age where ?individualized learning plan? is the watch phrase and blended-learning models aim to let students move at their own pace.

To underscore her point, Allyn shares an example of one of her struggling readers, Sam.

Sam, a 12-year-old student in one of my LitWorld programs for struggling readers, had a breakthrough moment recently. It happened at 3:30 p.m., after school hours, when he picked up Horton Hears a Who! and the volunteer smiled at him, and said, ?That's the perfect book for you, Sam. Dr. Seuss is one of the world's greatest, most brilliant writers of all.? The book was the perfect level for him as an emerging reader, the perfect pitch of humor and art; in short, the perfect book for Sam.

Back in his classroom, Sam was required to read To Kill a Mockingbird. He struggled against this book every day. He could not