Are Common Core and Testing Debates “Two Different Matters”?

A comment posted on my blog about union support for Common Core (CC)—which parallels my blog post about Secretary Duncan and the Obama administration’s support for CC—represents a typical response coming from standards advocates in the CC debate: “You can’t combine the issue of high stakes testing with the common core [sic] they are two different matters.”

Alfie Kohn in January 2010 argued against national standards in Education Week; I then offered a direct rejection of CC in the same publication in August of 2010. A few others took early stances against CC, such as Susan Ohanian (whose work is impressive and certainly well before most people raised any concerns) and Stephen Krashen.

Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris have taken stances opposing CC more recently, and they represent thoughtful and patient considerations of the exact issue raised by the comment quoted above. At first, Ravitch and Burris appeared willing to consider that CC could prove to be an effective reform mechanism. But both of their explanations for deciding to oppose CC are windows into my initial and continuing stance against the expensive and unnecessary venture into what for most states will be the third or fourth set of standards and high-stakes tests in about thirty years.

I have been a teacher for those thirty years, in fact—the first 18 years spent as a public school teacher in the rural South and the last 13 years as a teacher educator in the same region.

My work as a classroom teacher in the 1980s and 1990s was characterized by quarterly multiple-choice benchmark tests of reading and quarterly writing samples from my students that asked them to write one of four types of writing: description, narration, persuasion, or exposition (types that do not exist as stand-alone forms in the real world, by the way, but exist only in a world where standards and testing rule).

During those years also, state standards changed three times, and concurrent with those changes, we adopted new textbooks and sat through hours and hours of in-service, handed over more and more class time to test-prep, and implemented SAT courses during the school day (ones for which students received credit toward graduation) that required huge investments in hardware and software, which mostly never worked (my home state of SC has a history of so-called low SAT scores so our 1990s approach to addressing that was to encourage more students to take the SAT).

Eventually, the entire state of SC became invested in MAP testing while students at the high school where I taught were assigned two ELA and two math courses as sophomores if they had 8th-grade test data suggesting they would struggle with the state high-stakes tests. Our administration assigned as many as half our sophomores in double ELA and math courses, in fact.

One legacy of this test-mania was that many sophomores in our school wrote only 3-5-3 essays (3-sentence introduction, 5-sentence body paragraph, 3-sentence conclusion) because that was how they were trained to answer on the state writing test—a strategy that did increase how many passed but also ignored good writing pedagogy and mis-educated those students severely.

In the 1980s and 1990s, my high school became a master of doing the wrong thing the right way as we were regularly the top-scoring school in the state on the state’s high-stakes tests.

Once at higher education, I watched my teacher candidates and teachers in the surrounding public schools suffer under yet more revisions to the standards and two different versions of high-stakes tests (since the mid-1980s, SC has implemented BSAP and then PACT and then PASS); now the entire state is implementing CC and poised for the CC-based and once again new set of high-stakes test.

All of this is to say: If you have ever taught in public schools during the past three decades you know that the comment quoted at the beginning is patently false. In fact, if you have taught in public schools during the past three decades you know that CC cannot be separated from highs-stakes testing.

In 2013, with almost all states in the U.S. committed to CC, with the U.S. Department of Education supporting CC, with teachers’ unions supporting CC, with textbook and testing companies supporting CC, and with professional teacher organizations supporting CC, there is a deafening silence about a few facts that must be confronted if anyone or any organization wishes to make this claim: “You can’t combine the issue of high stakes testing with the common core [sic] they are two different matters”:

  • Name a state in the U.S. that implemented state standards since 1980 without also implementing high-stakes tests.
  • Name a state in the U.S. that has adopted CC and has not adopted some form of high-stakes testing related to CC.
  • Name a state that does not have high-stakes accountability mechanisms in place—as a legacy of state legislation and/or as a result of complying with federal mandates within policy such as Race to the Top or opting out of NCLB.
  • Name a school (especially a high-poverty school) where “what is tested is what is taught” does not drive most of what occurs in that school.
  • Name a state that is not spending tax payer money (totaling in the 10s if not 100s of millions of dollars nationally) on CC resources and technology, CC-aligned text books, CC testing, and CC teacher in-service.
  • Name a strong CC advocate who isn’t making money and/or gaining political advantage by endorsing CC.

My doctorate is in curriculum and instruction. A foundational part of my doctoral study and dissertation research, then, explored the century-old debate about what content matters, what should be taught in public schools. Any standards movement is a direct descendent of the larger curriculum debate.

While John Dewey and even Joseph Schwab provide engaging and powerful places upon which Eliot Eisner and others have the luxury of thinking deeply about esoteric things (issues that I too find fascinating), in the real world of day-to-day K-12 teaching, it is pure delusion and myopic idealism to make claims that CC and high-stakes testing debates are “two different matters.”

Around 2000 when my daughter was 11 and attending a public middle school, she came out to the car one day leaning against the weight of her giant backpack, slid into my car, and then said: “All they care about is the PACT test [SC’s high-stakes test at the time]; they don’t care if we learn anything.” [1] She never once as a student mentioned the standards. And in many ways as a child of the accountability era, I think she learned to hate school. She loved her friends and loved many of her teachers, but she hated what school had become throughout the 1990s—which pales to what school has become in the twenty-first century.

Thus, address the bullet points above if you don’t believe me, or better yet, ask a classroom teacher—not a union leader, not a politician, not a representative of Pearson, not a consultant.

[1] See “Standards, Standards Everywhere, and Not a Spot to Think,” English Journal (2001, September).


25 thoughts on “Are Common Core and Testing Debates “Two Different Matters”?

  1. Pingback: Are Common Core and Testing Debates “Two Different Matters”? – @ THE CHALK FACE

  2. Just as cigarettes provide a most efficient nicotine delivery system, the Common Core is the high stakes testing delivery system for those addicted to the socially cancerous policies that result, ranging from demonization and demoralization to containment and segregation of the poor and the brown. As such, the Common Core functions to efficiently continue the “war against the weak” that began in the early 20th Century.

  3. Excellent piece. With all the talk of “poor implementation”, especially coming from my state of NY and union leaders failing to see the difference between the two. I guess every Common Core supporter should advocate the end of high-stakes testing either legislatively or via mass-boycotts if they think the CC is separate. The Corporate creators of the CC will want to measure that the standards are being taught around the nation, how will they want to do this? High-stakes testing.

  4. I think you accept that in the near future state standards (presently to be dominated by a transition to CCS) and assessments (presently to be dominated by PARCC and SBAC) are not going away.

    So one can fight against both in the long term.

    But in the near term – are there better state standards and state assessments that have existed recently? If so, which are they? I can’t speak to the math, but for the ELA standards I think they’re a marked improvement from anything I had seen.

    • I got into this from OWS 3-years ago, because I believed that fighting Corp/Neo-Lib reform had to be defeated in order to get off this train to Corporate-totalitarianism and a return to returning societies back to Community-controlled Democracy (which I admit might one-day be said to be another idealistic view just as vulnerable to invasion of Racist type power enthusiasts. No answer to corruption of power other than constant vigilance and education of the populace. Continual focusing on economics (economic cost-benefit arguments) induces fears that prevent focusing on quality-of-life arguments).

  5. Paul,

    I agree with everything that you say here, especially your critique of the kind of theorizing devoid of practice that is, yes enjoyable, yet also distracting, and ultimately self-deluding. Still, I’d like to see you carry your argument farther–to examine that “real world” in which these theoretically distinct concepts take shape. What are the social, economic, political forces whose intersection aligns these standards and tests? How, as an educational community, do we respond to this onslaught?
    I have not yet read your piece in the English Journal. I have downloaded it and will do that. Certainly the work of Diane Ravitch has been quite powerful, but, I do think we need to probe these questions more deeply. If, as one blogger posted recently, we are becoming a nation of oligarchs, how do we make use of this social fact and turn it to our advantage? Your post gives us a place to start, I think.

    • Paul,
      Having taken some time to look through your website, I am embarrassed at my post above. Your work investigates those forces, documents their effects, and offers responses. I should have know of your work already. Please accept my apology.

  6. Common Core sets students and teachers up to fail. As a teacher who left the classroom to fight against Common Core and testing, I see standards based teaching and testing as two sides of the same coin. Attached is a letter I wrote to my students explaining why I left and why I have now been banned from retuning to campus to chaperone events, as I had promised my students I would do.

  7. I see Jeremy is leaving his shallow comments here as well as has done with Meg’s article…..The government has taken over the US school systems so they can profit from them. The high cost of this?….. the demoralization of our children, teachers, and all those who work round the clock to provide a better life for our kids so they can grow up to be valuable members of society.

    • I do see them as tied to one another. In order to be ELIGIBLE for the RTTT monies one must sign on to the common core… The catch/problem is that the district signs on to the CC unilaterally but needs the unions support for the RTTT monies.

      In Newark NJ, the union didn’t sign on to the RTTT monies simply because the cash was not EARMARKED for the Teachers, students, or classrooms. It was primarily earmarked for MORE CONSULTANTS to do the job of people the superintendent had laid off! An example of something earmarked for the classroom was… Earbuds for the teachers and cameras for EVERY CLASSROOM, so that someone remotely could in REAL-Time could watch you teach and whisper suggestions in your ear or possibly tell you which students are misbehaving behind your back, REALLY???

      I do believe that our OLD STANDARDS were CUMBERSOME and a MILE WIDE. I agree with narrowing of the content per grade level, I don’t agree with some content being moved to a lower grade though. I don’t believe that the students brains are ready and capable of doing some of the things requested (at least the masses on that grade level are not, there are ALWAYS EXCEPTIONS to the rule).

      Can you say HORRIBLE? Can you say RUSHED? Can you say NOT WELL PLANNED?

      A plan should have been devised where implementation was done by GRADE LEVELS (grade level (singular, in a perfect world) at a time! Testing needed to be HALTED as well. We both know why these things couldn’t be done, because they go hand in hand! Let me not even go into Pearson and how they have their hand in both (CC writing and PARCC), well all 3 if you count the text book division… Money BREEDS Money!

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  13. Currently common core and testing are the same. However, if those interested in kids would develop a plan of action CC can be changed forward rather than backward. CC should not be repealled bc it takes us out of the letter grade mess and tries to make learning and assessment based in information gathered. However, the information gathered currently is irrelevant drivel. To save tome of those un interested, I will link to a more detailed description of my thought for the future.

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  19. The problem is that the testing and pre-packaged scripted curriculum profiteering is the real heart, and CCSS is just a label. If you get rid of CCSS, they’ll slap a new label on things and demand that everything must be repurchased. They WANT CCSS in people’s target sights. It is the cape the matador waves, and the standardized testing and profiteering is the sword held by corporations. We need to focus on what is hiding behind the cape, not the cape itself.

  20. thank you for sharing your insights in this matter. I am part of a dialogue on Facebook about opting out and was getting frustrated that some of the parents there want to separate the issues – they are not separate, they are totally connected (as you so eloquently pointed out) and I am not alone in thinking so!

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