The false promise of “field testing” standards

Diane Ravitch penned a post this week lambasting the architects of the Common Core standards for not “field testing” the expectations in a small handful of states before rolling them out more broadly. The standards “are being rolled out in 45 states without a field trial anywhere,” Ravitch complains.

How can I say that I love them or like them or hate them when I don’t know how they will work when they reach the nation’s classrooms?
You can’t “field test” what a state should expect its students should learn.

This sounds like sage advice. After all, field testing is a proven way to refine and validate solutions to complicated problems. But in this case, just because it sounds like sage advice, doesn’t make it so. In fact, suggesting that we “field test” Common Core betrays a fundamental misunderstanding about what standards are and what they are not.

Standards aren’t an instructional program or curriculum that helps teachers and students reach an academic goal. Standards are the goal. They are nothing more or less than a simple list of knowledge and skills that students should learn at particular grade levels. You can’t “field test” what a state should expect its students should learn.

Of course, reasonable people can and should debate what should comprise that list of the essential knowledge and skills all children should learn. And educators can quibble over what whether students should learn particular content in fifth or sixth grade. Many critics of the Common Core math standards, for instance, believe that the standards should require all students to take Algebra in the eighth grade, something that isn’t explicitly required by the standards.

What’s important to recognize, though, is that these decisions are ultimately judgment calls. To be sure, debating what students should learn and when they should learn it is critical and teachers’ voices are essential to guiding them, but we shouldn’t pretend that piloting the Common Core in a handful of states will yield decisive information about whether these or any expectations are “right” for students. Because that question depends, at least in part, on the goal we are driving towards.

Of course, therein lies the standards-setting challenge. Ultimately, state leaders—educators among them—need to decide what expectations students across the state will be held to. Pretending that we need to delay standards adoption to test whether or not students will be better off having been asked to master specific content is foolish. The challenge of standards adoption is reaching consensus about what we should expect students to learn. And no amount of field testing will ever solve that dilemma.

Kathleen Porter-Magee
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute