Rotten to the (Common) Core: How New Education Standards Again Stymie Public Educaiton

Meet the new education standards.  Same as the old education standards.  

As a public school teacher who entered the profession in 2007, I have spent the last seven years of my life seeing America's children become victims of a system that aims to ensure their failure.  It is a system that literally rewards the rich.  Those from affluent backgrounds have more opportunities before they start school, have more resources at school, have more resources at home, and are essentially given a free pass to higher education, regardless of how hard they work at school.  Those from lower socio-economic classes are playing a rigged game.  They are disadvantaged, they don't have proper resources, and they don't have the same opportunities as their peers no matter how often society tells them that education is the great equalizer.  

Teaching in public and charter schools on both the east and west coast, I have experienced this firsthand.  When I taught middle school in North Carolina, students took a standardized test called the End of Grade (EOG) in math and English each year from grades 3-8.  The last month prior to testing was called "red zone" and involved curricula in both math and English to directly teach test preparation.  My first year teaching, I was reprimanded for taking my students outside to read during one of the "red zone" days.  I had mistakenly assumed that if my students were good readers and enjoyed reading they might do better on a standardized test than if I taught them dull and repetitive test taking techniques.  But what did I know?  I was just a first-year teacher.

The tests themselves weren't an accurate depiction of student learning.  No test can be when you have to bubble in A, B, C, or D.  In addition to forcing students to choose an answer, often having to choose from two similar choices, the test themselves were culturally biased.  I recall doing test analysis and seeing one particular reading passage where students had to answer questions on an article on baseball.  As a baseball fan, I had the background information to answer the questions.  However, there was one particular question that could have only been answered if students knew the term "mound" which was not even mentioned in the reading passage itself.  Unless students had previous experience with baseball then they would most likely not know this term and would thus get the answer wrong.  I recall that the group of students that was tested that year in my class included a lot of recent immigrants who had not yet been exposed to the "apple pie and baseball" culture of their new homeland.

As if that wasn't bad enough, the way the test results were used was the most disheartening aspect of all.  These single tests, giving on hot May days in overcrowded classrooms, were used to determine the success of the entire school.  The term "success" took on a whole new meaning.  In North Carolina, a student "passed" the EOG if he or she got a level 3 or 4 on the exam.  A level 3 consisted of getting 60% of the questions right while a level 4 consisted of getting 80% of the questions right.  At my middle school we applauded and recognized level 3's.  In essence we were rewarding students who knew 60% of the material they were expected to know.  That would be the equivalent to a school having an awards assembly and recognizing all the students who had a 1.0 GPA to stand up, come forward, and accept their award.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if the majority of students were a level 1 or 2 then that hurt your school's overall performance.  I worked at a school where 90% of the students were on free and reduced lunch.  You can imagine the kind of educational opportunities that these students had already experienced in their lives.  While I was at my old school, average EOG scores had between 25-30% of the students passing.  This, of course, put us on the "watch list" for schools that were on the verge of being restructured by the district for consistent low academic performance.  Since I left that school four years ago, it merged with another low-achieving school in the area.  Combined, this new school now has an average pass rate of 10% across the board in English and math.  Why have two failing schools when you can have only one?  It looks better for the school district.  Now that this new school is doing worse, should it eventually close then the school district will have no failing middle schools.  Everybody wins!  Well expect the teachers, the students, and the community but at least the superintendent of schools can boast that his district no longer has any failing middle schools.

Clearly, this kind of testing associated with No Child Left Behind put a burden of all of us in the education field.  When Barack Obama was elected president and ended up easing up on NCLB requirements, many of us in the field of education felt a huge wave of relief.  We could finally stop the stir-crazy mentality of constantly testing our students and get back to basics:  Building relationships with our students, collaborating with colleagues, and using research-based best practices to improve our teaching.  However, just as NCLB was dying, a new more sinister beast was waiting in the wings.  This new beast is called the Common Core State Standards and it may finally be the straw that breaks the back of public education in this country.

In 2009, the National Governor's Association got together with educators to work on uniform, nation-wide content standards.  The idea was rooted in the common-sense idea that students should be learning common skills across all disciplines that would help them to become successful after their public education experience culminated upon their graduation from high school.  In 2010, forty-five of the fifty states adopted the standards with a handful of states such as Texas opting out because, well, Texas likes to do things its own "special" way.  For these forty-five states choosing to adopt the standards, it gave them a way to ensure that a student who moved from one state to another would be coming into his or her new classroom with a solid foundation and who wouldn't end up being behind because he or she happened to come from another state with a different set of educational expectations.

That was the theory.  However, we've come to see that the practice of Common Core is an entirely new beast all together.  First and foremost, the issue comes up concerning how this new series of tests will be evaluated.  As of now, Pearson Charitable Foundation, the nonprofit wing of mega-publisher Pearson, Inc. has taken on that role as the publishing company in charge of testing and test preparation materials.  However, there have already been concerns about this arrangement as Pearson Charitable Foundation settled a $7.7 million lawsuit in December after it was revealed they had illegally used their nonprofit status to funnel money to the parent company Pearson, Inc. relating to Common Core testing materials.  Test preparation is a lucrative business and Pearson, Inc. knows it is sitting on a gold mine of wealth and riches by already having test preparation materials ready to go on the open market for all districts across the country.

Having recently been exposed to an early practice test for 11th grade language arts, the test also provided me a disturbing trend about the kind of skills that students were expected to attain.  First off, the test is administered on computers which already gives slower typists and students from non-technology backgrounds a disadvantage.  In addition, there are some short answer responses, which on the surface, would seem to be a positive thing.  However, my concern is how they are scored.  Who scores these responses?  Do they just look for key words?  Does spelling hurt a free response even though the analysis is top-quality?  None of these questions have been addressed on any of the Common Core websites and it seems nobody has a clear idea of what scorers will be looking for when they evaluate our children's responses.

In addition, a major issue remains the fact that Common Core is essentially a twelve-year process designed to give students the skills needed upon high school graduation.  It starts in grade one, then that knowledge is supplemented in grade two, etc. etc. all the way up through grade twelve.  However, each year students are tested on this "new" way of thinking despite the fact that they may not have been explicitly taught these skills that are expected of them.  In essence, Common Core becomes like a ten-foot basketball pole.  Up until this point, every basketball player nationwide has been training to score on that ten-foot goal.  They've practiced this way, they've been coached this way, they've gone out on their own ten-foot goals at their homes and in their communities.  When it comes time to finally get to the big game, the basketball players are expected to score on an eleven-foot goal.  Their individual success, as well as that of their coach, depends on how well they do in scoring on that eleven-foot goal.  Doesn't seem fair, does it?

And that is the major issue many of us have with the Common Core standards:  It's a long-term way of thinking and learning that will be evaluated every single year.  It's like designing a bridge and getting penalized every week the bridge isn't completed.  It is this mindset that has caused an unlikely army of allies to emerge against the Common Core Standards.  This very well might be the only issue in America were both progressives and Tea Party members agree.  For progressives, Common Core represents another way to over-test our nation's students and to place an unneeded emphasis on standardized testing.  For the Tea Party members, Common Core represents a government takeover of the public education system.  We have recently seen Indiana become the first state to opt out of the Common Core standards despite having initially signed on in 2010.  As pilot testing begins to happen in many states this spring, expect to see more and more states following Indiana's lead.

America needs education standards.  Students need access to an equal education regardless of whether they're in the Bronx or Beverly Hills.  However, the Common Core Stand Standards are not the solution this country needs.  We have already over-tested a generation of American students and Common Core seeks to exacerbate this problem.  As students get tested on skills they haven't been taught, test scores will plummet, students will fail tests, teachers will lose their jobs, and ultimately communities will lose their schools.  And while all that is going on, Pearson, Inc. will make millions of dollars selling test remediation materials to those that need.  At my current school, teachers and administrators are already trying to figure out how to spin the inevitable decline in test scores for the 2014-2015 school year because telling parents, "The test was unfair" doesn't mean a whole lot to parents whose child was just told that he or she had just failed a standardized test.  No Child Left Behind might be gone, but Common Core State Standards now has the opportunity to do even more damage to our nation's children.

Even the Tea Party can see that.

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