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Posts Tagged ‘high-stakes standardized testing’

What is Common Core?

The Common Core State Standards are lists of what students should be able to do, in each grade from kindergarten to 12th grade, in English and Math. They are endorsed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, but privately funded and developed. Released in 2010, they have been adopted by 48 states.

While consistent standards is a good idea, the Common Core State Standards are not very well done, in English or in Math. The authors were not experts in education, wrote them in only six months, the standards were never field tested, and there is no mechanism for fixing various problems with them. But, they are no worse than most previous standards.

The problem is that they are part of “standards-based reform,” an approach to education based on high-stakes standardized testing. In fact, 14 of the 24 Common Core authors are from standardized testing organizations.

The federal No Child Left Behind Act, in force since 2002, made federal funding contingent on raising test scores every year, for a 100% pass rate in 2014.

In order to get a waiver (and federal funding), 40 states, including Alaska, had to sign on to the Common Core State Standards; more teacher evaluations; more charter schools; and new, harder tests, that must be taken electronically.

According to our district superintendent, the Sitka School District is looking at spending 1.6 million dollars for these mandates in the waiver: new curriculum, hiring extra personnel for teacher evaluation, and equipment for the online testing. The state of Alaska paid $25 million dollars last summer, for the new tests.

The waiver requires that by 2017 half of a teacher’s evaulation be based on students’ test scores, even though the teacher’s influence on student test scores – from 1 to 14% – is so small it can’t be separated from other factors. Why would we create such an incentive for teachers to focus on test scores, and to avoid low-performing students?

A study by the Carnegie Corporation predicts that the new, harder, Common Core tests will double the high school drop out rate. And, the new tests have to be taken on line, which has resulted in expense and logistical problems.

We already know that high-stakes standardized testing does not improve education, and there is no reason to think that harder tests, new standards, or teacher evaluation will do anything, either.

So why are we doing what doesn’t work?

Unfortunately, standards-based reform has been the American approach to education for 30 years. It is based on an obsolete model of learning: that education is the passive transfer of information, so the teacher just has to know the material, nothing more.

But a good teacher is not an information delivery system – she is more like a coach. Think about the great teachers you have had. Even if it’s the state capitals, or biology, it takes a good teacher to help kids get it. A good teacher has a fairly sophisticated set of leadership, psychology, and people skills, in addition to a mastery of her subject.

Standards-based reform does not expect – or allow – teachers to develop these skills. It is an attempt to fix education from the top down, without addressing the way learning actually works. That is why standards-based reform, educational technology, and MOOCs, among other initiatives, have been failures.

So why is it being promoted at every level of public education? Some is because teachers, as a class, have never had much status in America. Some of it is a sincere belief that this approach could work: Bill Gates has put hundreds of millions of dollars into developing and promoting Common Core State Standards, in the stated belief that the market can fix education: with common standards, industry can compete to create the best products.

Indeed, standards-based reform is very good for business: the K-12 ed tech market was $8.4 billion in 2014, up from 7.9 billion just the year before. Charter school companies, consultants, and hardware suppliers also make healthy profits.

Since we are up against an entrenched paradigm, and substantial commercial interests, what can we do at the local level? We can ask for evidence that what we spend will improve education. Testing does not improve education. Small class size in early elementary, on the other hand, is proven to result in higher graduation rates.We can encourage our district to involve the teacher workforce in designing improvements.

As education scholar Dr. Yang Zhao said in his talk, there are models everywhere, around the world, around the country, here in Sitka, for programs that work. We can just copy what works, whether it’s integrating art, or the way a particular teacher gets kids excited about algebra.

What if it’s the law, as it is, to spend our money on more teacher evaluations, new tests, new, unproven curriculum? Well, last I checked, this is a democracy. We can stand with our districts to press the legislature, the state board of education, and our Congress to roll back the focus on testing.

The Common Core State Standards could serve, for now, as a minimum, with modifications for their documented deficiencies. There is no reason to get new curriculum that is “aligned.” For one thing, the new standards are not that different from the old ones. But the main reason is that the Common Core State Standards were written expressly as a template for standardized tests, and the last thing we should be doing is desigining curriculum around tests. That is the heart of the problem with standards-based reform.

If you just have to test, first figure out why. If it’s to make sure a school is good, you certainly don’t have to test every kid, every year. Standardized tests provide no information a teacher can’t get (and doesn’t already have) using such tools as the “quiz” and “class assignments.”

Instead we can build on existing curriculum, and improve it based on sound teaching practice – integrating the arts, field trips, inquiry, and science – none of which is in the Common Core.

We need standards, and evaluation, that are based on what we really believe students should be able to do, not going by what some small D.C. testing group decided.

We can focus on teaching as the highly skilled craft it can and should be. Not preparing kids for taking a test, but preparing them for life and citizenship, through an education rich in content, that fosters a love of learning.

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