Common Core Means No Child Left Untested

After the first day of New York State's high-stakes Common Core aligned standardized testing, Newsday reported, "Thousands of Long Island elementary and middle school students -- in record numbers in some districts -- refused to take the state's English Language Arts exam." According to the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in the Fairport school district where the superintendent Bill Cala is an outspoken critic of testing, "67 percent of its students" opted out. In Westchester the children of the County Executive planned to opt out of the tests and in some Hudson Valley communities the unofficial opt out rate hovered around 50%. In suburban Buffalo the opt-out rate in some districts reached 70%. Statewide the unofficial opt-out total is probably over 100,000.

In response to widespread protests by parents and teachers, the United States Senate is pushing forward a bipartisan bill Every Child Achieves. It would revise the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) that initiated the current high-stakes testing craze and the opt-out movement in the United States. If the Senate bill ever becomes law, students, schools, districts and states will no longer be penalized because of student test scores. States will still be expected to test students annually in reading and math grades 3 through 8 and at least once in high school, however they will be allowed to devise their own supposedly "challenging" academic standards.

While it will be good to have the threat of punishment lifted, these revisions in the law will permit some of the poorest performing states, where legislatures do not adequately fund education, to lower standards by either making tests easier or simply lowering the passing "cut" scores. They will also authorize additional charter schools, further undermining public school systems. No child will be left untested, but public education will be threatened and many children will be left uneducated.

There is also a bill (H.R. 452) in the House of Representatives to eliminate annual testing. It has bipartisan support across the political spectrum and its co-sponsors include some of the less extreme Republicans. The website, however, gives it almost no chance of being approved.

The opt-out movement that precipitated the reexamination of NCLB is growing rapidly, but it is also a fragile coalition. It draws support from people and organizations with conflicting visions for the future of education. Conservative forces from "red states" want less federal oversight, which I think is a bad idea. The teachers' unions want student tests separated from teacher evaluations and will probably back out of the movement if they achieve this limited objective. Middle-class parents raise legitimate concerns about the stress these tests place on students but many have not endorsed broader goals such as school equity. My major problem with the tests is that they transform schools, especially lower performing schools in inner-city minority communities, into test prep academies where little real learning takes place. This includes some of the miracle charter school that boost student scores by doing nothing but tests preparation.

At the Hofstra University Conference on the George W. Bush presidency I was on a panel discussing Bush education policy with Anne-Imelda Radice, Chief of Staff to the Secretary of the United States Department of Education from 2003-2005 and Edward Rollins, a long time Republican Party political operative and a former advisor to President Ronald Reagan. When I was critical of No Child Left Behind for promoting a testing agenda in American schools and the "Houston Miracle" that turned out to be fraud, Radice responded that Bush and Rod Paige, his first Secretary of Education, were good men and that problems with their education policies could be fixed. Rollins focused on political practicalities. I said our charge was not deciding if they were good people or discussing what was politically practical at the time, but evaluating the long-term impact of their policies on American education, which I think have been disastrous.

President George W. Bush spoke about his educational policy at the General Philip Kearny School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on January 8, 2009 just before leaving office. In this speech he made clear that he wanted to be judged based on the success of his signature policy No Child Left Behind and that the key to NCLB was high-stakes annual testing.

That same night I spoke with over 100 parents and teachers at Port Washington, New York about the impact of high-stakes testing on students and teachers, support for the opt-out movement, and why I think Common Core, NCLB, Race to the Top, and the Cuomo agenda in New York have to be stopped. The meeting was sponsored by Port Washington Advocates for Public Education.

I made the point that for President Bush, the key to higher expectations was increased testing. According to Bush, "How can you possibly determine whether a child can read at grade level if you don't test? And for those who claim we're teaching the test, uh-uh. We're teaching a child to read so he or she can pass the test . . . Measurement is essential to success . . . Measurement is the gateway to true reform, and measurement is the best way to ensure parental involvement."

To Bush's credit, No Child Left Behind forced states and localities to de-aggregate statistics and target student populations that were performing poorly on assessment, especially minority youth. However, it also launched a national wave of school testing scandals.

The Texas test score miracle that Bush campaigned on in 2000 and was the model for No Child Left Behind, evaporated under closer scrutiny In Houston, where Bush's first Education Secretary, Rod Paige, was superintendent, dropout rates supposedly plunged while test scores soared. However, a closer look by outside auditors showed something very different. Sharpstown High School had reported zero dropouts in 2001-2002, although 463 students had mysteriously disappeared and been assigned a non-dropout code. Citywide, a 1.5% dropout rate turned out to be between 25 and 50% depending on how dropout was defined.

Although George W. Bush has been out of office for over six years, the fallout from NCLB continues. NCLB mandated that by 2014 every single student in every single school in every single community be proficient in reading and math. Since this is impossible to achieve, forty-three states, Puerto Rico, Washington DC, and the Bureau of Indian Affairs currently have waivers from NCLB mandates and two other states have requests pending.

Those of you familiar with the New Testament know it begins with a lot of begats. Well now No Child Left Behind begat Common Core and Common Core begat Race to the Top and Race to the Top begat Pearson and Pearson begat PARCC and all its begetting created the testing mess we now live with. And it is a testing mess. The key to understanding what is taking place is the Pearson / Common Core test which is the template for all the high stakes tests.

The fundamental problem with Common Core is that it is conceptually backwards. Instead of motivating students to learn by presenting them with challenging questions and interesting content rooted in their interests and experiences, Common Core is a bore. It removes substance from learning. Skills are decontextualized, which means they taught and practiced divorced from meaning. Common Core offers students no reason to learn.

Children learn to read the way they learn to talk. Reading, like speaking, is a social activity best taught by communities and through relationships. Children learn by watching older people, especially older children, read. They learn to read by discovering that important things they want to know are in the symbols. They learn to read because of the pleasure of discovery and praise form parents, teachers, siblings, and friends for their achievements. They learn to read because it both makes them part of a broader community and because they become independent of others, more grown up. Children learn to read because it gives them a private place to visit, and because in the end, they learn to love to read because it opens their imaginations to unseen worlds.

In Common Core based instruction reading is a mechanical activity that ignores student interest and the primary motivation to learn is your test score. To raise student scores, Common Core breaks reading down into a plethora of component skill parts. In the fourth grade, Common Core has nine reading literature standards, ten reading informational text standards, two foundational reading skills standards, six language acquisition standards, six speaking and listening standards, as well as "Range, Quality, and Complexity" standards. Lost, if not missing, in the barrage of standards are qualities like imagine, share, create, think, or more importantly, enjoy. Asking questions and having conversations are there as activities, but they are not emphasized as the core of understanding.

The Common Core approach to reading is like breaking a molecule down into individual elements. But as any science teacher can explain, once you break the molecular bonds that tie the atoms together, you lose all the properties of the original chemical. You now have hydrogen and oxygen, but you no longer have water. In Common Core students may learn skills, but they do not learn to love reading or to really understand sophisticated written material..

The more I look at the Common Core approach to reading, the more it seems to be a shill for publishers like Pearson to sell new "Common Core" aligned textbooks, workbooks, and online packaged learning programs.