Testing is Destroying the Common Core

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The marriage between the Common Core and testing should be annulled.

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I have always perceived myself as an educational nonconformist. I want open classrooms, a standards-based high school curriculum, student-directed projects, and more teacher leadership. Yet, I suddenly find myself supporting the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) that my nonconformist siblings are rejecting, while also being a vocal opponent of the testing that many policymakers believe is necessary to measure the Standards’ success.

Recently, the Colorado Springs Board of Education voted to opt most of its students out of the state-mandated testing in the spring. I can understand why. In my own district, some students in the high school spent 41.5 hours last year taking tests. I saw my track-team juniors for a total of two class periods in April; the rest of the time they were at track meets or testing.

Testing and test-preparation wears down students mentally and emotionally, and it causes a significant loss of instructional time. No real curricular progress can be made when a teacher administers a four-hour test. The students taking the test are taught nothing, and because the teacher must proctor the test the students in the teacher’s other classes do not advance while they have a substitute teacher.

There is also a financial strain: substitutes, snacks, and test administrators cost money. Some teachers have even, famously, refused to test their students, such as a Florida kindergarten teacher and a Colorado literacy coach.

The Colorado literacy coach, however, not only opposed testing but also argued against the CCSS. Yet that is where I part company. The CCSS provide an excellent blueprint for what students should be able to do after completing each grade level.

How can I simultaneously oppose testing while advocating for the CCSS?

The CCSS have become conflated with the testing cycle. As I was writing this essay, for example, I received an invitation to attend a panel discussion on “Testing and the Common Core,” billed as co-threats to public education. This marriage of testing and the CCSS in the public eye has had destructive effects instead of advancing public education.

The backlash against testing has begun to influence today’s policy discussions surrounding public education. Test scores have become the only outcome many policymakers emphasize. The scores affect districts’ ability to secure grant funds, districts’ status in making Adequate Yearly Progress under the No Child Left Behind requirements, students’ ability to get into selective colleges, and teachers’ ability to keep their jobs. Despite all the reasons to reject using a single test score as an adequate and accurate measure of student learning or of district or teacher effectiveness, testing is a monolith supported at its core by the highly profitable education industry.

Conservatives have made various claims about the Standards’ indoctrination of youth. These claims, however, demonstrate a basic failure to understand the Standards as a neutral educational blueprint. Others claim that the CCSS could suck the life out of literature curricula by mandating nonfiction texts and that the Standards will continue to hurt students and teachers unless educators are properly trained to implement the CCSS. These are legitimate concerns worth addressing.

But the most reasonable complaint does not concern the CCSS at all: it concerns the testing of these new standards. The hours of in-school testing time, the delayed feedback from testing companies, the use of test scores to determine teachers’ job retention: these undue emphases derail the real purpose and promise of public education which the Standards buttress. Some vocal opponents of the CCSS are also opponents of testing, and they make strange bedfellows with conservatives pitted against national policymakers like Arne Duncan and organizations such as the Council of Chief State School Officers. This is an unfortunate development for CCSS supporters, because it is hard to defend an educational initiative attached to unpopular connotations and requirements.

The most significant problem with the CCSS movement is its haphazard marriage to the push for testing. Because so many parents, policymakers, and teachers reject testing and see the tests and the Standards as inextricable, the Standards themselves have come under attack. Because the CCSS have become politicized by being linked with testing, they will continue to be used as a lever to gain votes. Because education companies have targeted the CCSS as a marketing goal, the Standards, when combined with testing, risk shedding erstwhile supporters.

This marriage occurred for two reasons. First, mainly conservative politicians saw the Standards as a chance to spin a Democratic administration as big-government and top-down as they pitched rhetoric to the public about “government takeovers” and indoctrination. Early in the anti-CCSS campaign I responded to a letter to the editor parroting this very message. This rhetoric of over-regulation has become standard applause fodder for Republicans running for office, and it is generally full of misinformation. Conservatives have a tendency to call the CCSS a government program; it is not, despite the money dangled in front of states by the federal Race to the Top initiative. They want to say it was imposed on the states; it was not (as evidence some states have recently moved away from the Standards as a result of this political fray). They like to say it is a prescribed curriculum with required books and ideas; rather, it is an articulation of a set of important skills.

The second development that created this marriage is related to teachers. We are being asked to align our teaching to a skill set that may differ from how we taught before the CCSS. Even though there are noted problems with evaluating teachers on a single test score, 35 states and the competitive Race to the Top grant initiative now emphasize evaluating teachers this way. Those teachers are reasonably pushing back against the testing, but their other target – the CCSS – has nothing to do with the state lawmakers’ evaluation systems.

The solution to this dilemma is simple: divorce the Standards from the tests.

First, the separate functions of the CCSS and testing must be publicly clarified. Standards are for teachers and students; aggregate test scores primarily serve administrators and policymakers. Separate from any test process or score, an informed public should determine whether the CCSS represent a better blueprint for teaching. Only after this assessment can we discuss whether or how to keep testing students.

Next, the public must respond to the politicized rhetoric surround the CCSS. When commentators spread misinformation, it is incumbent on teachers as well as other educational and political leaders to correct the public discourse. We need to write letters to the editor, talk to parents and community members, and be prepared with resources to share.

Educators must voice their concerns about over-testing directly to their school boards and state superintendents. Teachers’ public statements can work to change policy and save good education initiatives such as the CCSS.

Once we can begin to disentangle the Standards from the tests, the public can re-focus on quality teaching. Teachers can return to advocating for our students instead of worrying about job security or test preparation. As noted by John Ash, principal of Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, “Great teachers adjust to whatever we ask them to do.” Let’s ask teachers to teach well and annul the rocky relationship between Standards and tests.

This essay is part of a seven-part series, The Debate Over the Common Core State Standards.

Anna Baldwin

Anna E. Baldwin, Ed.D., is a high school English teacher and literacy coach at Arlee High School on the Flathead Indian Reservation in Montana. She is the 2014 Montana Teacher of the Year.