Common Core

The testing “opt-out” movement is testing education reform’s humility.

The number of students not participating in state assessments is large and growing. In one New York district, 70 percent of students opted out; in one New Jersey district, it was 40 percent.

Some reporting makes the case that this phenomenon is part of a larger anti-accountability, anti-Common Core story. Some reformers, it seems to me, believe opting out is the result of ignorance or worse.

Participants are routinely cast as uninformed or irrational. Amanda Ripley implied that opting out of testing is like opting out of vaccines and lice checks. New York Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch argued, “We don’t refuse to go to the doctor for an annual check-up…we should not refuse to take the test.” A column in the Orlando Sentinel argued we’d “lost our minds” and that the “opt-out movement has officially jumped...

The University of Kentucky may have lost the NCAA tournament, but Kentuckians can still take heart in their K–12 schools’ promising non-athletic gains. According to this new report, the Bluegrass State’s ACT scores have shot up since it began to implement the Common Core in 2011–12.

Using data from the Kentucky Department of Education, the study compared ACT scores for three cohorts of students who entered eighth grade between the 2007–08 and 2009–10 school years. The first group took the ACT—a state requirement for all eleventh graders—in 2010–11, immediately prior to CCSS implementation. They were therefore not formally exposed to instruction under the new standards. Cohorts two and three took the ACT in 2011–11 and 2012–13, after the introduction of CCSS-aligned curricula. They earned composite scores that were 0.18 and 0.25 points higher, respectively, relative to first cohort. The study authors report this gain as roughly equivalent to three months of additional learning.

The report rightly cautions against reading too much into these early findings. The short interval between Common Core implementation and the cohorts’ ACT scores reduces the effect the standards could have on student achievement. The authors also note that it is not clear whether the scoring gains...

This post has been updated with the full text of "Wanna opt out of tests? Try this instead"

There’s a bracing moment early in the 1991 movie Grand Canyon. A tow truck driver played by Danny Glover miraculously appears to rescue a stranded motorist played by Kevin Kline, who is being terrorized by thugs on a deserted Los Angeles street. Glover’s character appears, calmly hooks up the disabled car to his rig, and appeals to the gun-toting gang leader to let him and Kline go on their way.

“I'm gonna grant you that favor, but tell me this,” the gang leader says after a tense standoff, reminding the tow truck operator that he’s calling the shots. “Are you asking me as a sign of respect? Or are you asking because I've got the gun?”

“You ain't got the gun,” Glover replies, “we ain't having this conversation.”

I think of this scene every time I read a story about the “opt-out movement”—parents and others protesting the distorting effects of standardized testing in schools by refusing to let their children take the tests. Opt-out parents believe they have a gun pointed at testing. They might be right. But the opt-out movement...

Part II of the latest Brown Center report is called “Measuring Effects of the Common Core.” Loveless creates two indexes of Common Core State Standards implementation by using data from two surveys of state education agencies. The 2011 index is based on a survey from that year, which reports how many activities—such as conducting professional development or adopting new instructional materials—states had undertaken while implementing the CCSS. “Strong” states are those that pursued at least three implementation strategies. The 2013 index uses survey data asking state officials when they plan to complete CCSS implementation. In this case, “strong” indicates full implementation by 2012–2013.

Analyzing the relationship between survey results and fourth-grade NAEP data for reading, Loveless finds little difference between “strong” states and the four states that never adopted Common Core. According to the 2011 index, strong implementers outscored the four states that didn’t adopt the Common Core by a little more than a scale point between 2009 and 13 (yet the small comparison group makes for less reliable findings). Strong states did a bit better relative to the 2013 index, but still outdid non-implementers by less than two NAEP points.

More interesting than these preliminary correlation studies, however, is...

There used to be a wry and mildly provocative blog called “Stuff White People Like.” Briefly popular in its heyday, it was described by the New Republic as a “piquant satire of white liberal cultural mores and hypocrisies.” The site’s creator stopped updating it a few years back after landing a book deal. But if it were still active, “opting out of tests” might have been right up there with craft beer, farmers’ markets, NPR, and Wes Anderson movies on that list of mores. Maybe hypocrisies, too.

A list compiled by the teachers’ union in New Jersey, where PARCC testing began earlier this month, claims that there have been more than thirty-five thousand test refusals statewide. On the order of one million young New Jerseyans are supposed to take the test, yet the state data documenting how many of them opted out won’t be available for at least a month. An informal analysis of the New Jersey Education Association (NJEA)’s list, however, shows that the highest numbers of test refusals are concentrated in communities that are affluent, left-leaning, and heavily white. 

A blue state with a Republican governor, New Jersey features a mix of affluent suburbs...

Last week, I complained that Eva Moskowitz and other reformers weren’t being fair when they described schools as “persistently failing” because they didn’t get many of their students to the ambitious levels built into the Common Core. This is how I concluded:

The move to higher standards means that we need to recalibrate our rhetoric and, more importantly, our approach to school accountability. In the low-standards days, it was perfectly legitimate to call out schools that couldn’t get all or most of their students to minimal levels of literacy and numeracy. It simply doesn’t work to similarly defame schools that don’t get all of their students “on track for college and career.” It’s a much higher bar and a much longer road.

But reform critics aren’t any better when it comes to playing games with the new standards. Diane Ravitch and Valerie Strauss, for example, continue to peddle the notion that the Common Core is developmentally inappropriate because it expects all students to be able to read simple passages by the end of kindergarten. Perhaps without knowing it, they’re making the same mistake as Moskowitz and...

Editor's note: This article originally appeared in a slightly different form at Tim Shanahan's blog, Shanahan on Literacy.

Ladies and gentlemen, we're quickly sinking into the quicksand of yet another presidential campaign. I'm writing to help with the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) issue. I don't want any of you tripped up by a feeble or foolish argument, and there are lots of ways of doing that. I'm sure you all know not to rely on your thirteen-year-old kids for policy advice—and not to sigh audibly and roll your eyes, since it will look like you sent your thirteen-year-old to debate in your place. If you can't stare down a callow opponent successfully, how will you ever convince voters that you can handle Putin or ISIS?

I won't be so bold as to suggest what your position should be on Common Core, but I do have advice as to which arguments to avoid.  

1. Previous educational standards were better.

Don't make this claim. It can only embarrass you (it's as bad as not being able to spell "potato"). Past standards were so low, they were the educational equivalent of everyone getting a tee-ball trophy. Many U.S. students met...

In the pre-Common Core era, we had a big problem. Most state tests measured minimal competency in reading and math. But we failed to communicate that to parents, so they reasonably thought a passing grade meant their child was pretty much where they needed to be. Little did they know that their kid could earn a mark of “proficiency” and be reading or doing math at the twentieth or thirtieth percentile nationally. Frankly, we lied to the parents of too many children who were well below average and not at all on a trajectory for success in college or a well-paying career.

Playing games with proficiency cut scores provided much of the impetus behind Common Core. States raised standards and started building tests pitched at a much higher level. Most states are giving those tests for the first time right now, though New York and Kentucky made the transition two years ago. As of 2013, New York’s tests were the toughest in the country, according to a new analysis by Paul Peterson and Matthew Ackerman in Education Next, matching—if not exceeding—the performance standards of the National Assessment of Educational Progress.  

That may solve the “proficiency illusion”...

This post has been updated with the full text of "Shifting from learning to read to reading to learn."

Spring means high-stakes tests in America’s schools, and this year’s test season is already proving to be a particularly contentious one. The number of parents choosing to “opt out” of tests remains small but appears to be growing. Anti-testing sentiment will likely sharpen as rigorous tests associated with Common Core are rolled out in earnest this year. Parents who have been lulled into complacency by their children’s scores on low-bar state tests may not react well when their children are measured against higher standards.

Testing—who should be tested, how often, and in which subjects – is also one of the most contentious issues in the pending reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (the most recent iteration of which is better known as No Child Left Behind). At present, the feds require states to test every student every year in math and reading from grades 3–8. However, if we are serious about improving reading—and education outcomes for children at large—we might be better off if we stopped testing reading in third grade rather than started it.

There are two big problems with existing test-driven...

Nearly five years into Common Core implementation, educators across the country continue to struggle to identify and access high-quality instructional materials aligned to the new academic standards, often relying on outdated textbooks or cobbling together multiple sets of materials to get by.

A valuable resource is now available for educators. Edreports.org, a new nonprofit organization reviewing materials for alignment to the Common Core, last week released findings from its initial round of evaluations. The consumer reports-style reviews (conducted by experienced educators, including classroom teachers, principals, and instructional coaches) evaluate curricular materials against three sequential categories, or "gateways"—“focus and coherence,” “rigor and the mathematical practices,” and “instructional supports and other usability indicators”—with only those meeting the first gateway advancing to the second and third. On the whole, findings are not promising. Of the twenty K–8 mathematics instructional series reviewed to date, only one met EdReport.org's criteria for alignment at all grade levels (Eureka, grades K–8), with a second series meeting the alignment criteria in two grades (My Math, grades 4–5). Eureka’s strong showing is particularly impressive, as it didn’t exist five years ago—it was originally created from scratch for the EngageNY website, whose combined math and ELA curriculum modules have...

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