Road Bumps, Drama and Noise: Officials Dismiss Complaints about Common Core

In this Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, photo provided by CBS News, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks on CBS's " Face the Nati
In this Sunday, Feb. 24, 2013, photo provided by CBS News, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan speaks on CBS's " Face the Nation" in Washington. Duncan spoke about the instability created by across-the-board, sequestration, cuts and their impact on education budget (AP Photo/CBS News, Chris Usher)

Memo to John King, New York State Commissioner of Education, and Arne Duncan, United States Secretary of Education:

Dismissing deeply felt parent and teacher upset with the Common Core Standards and the accompanying high-stakes regime that turn public schools into test prep academies as bumps on the "road to change," "damaging" efforts to raise standards, and nothing but "drama and noise," will not stem the growing protest movement. You might try a different tactic like respect and even reconsideration of your positions.

During the last two weeks, New York City parents, teachers, school administrators, and students have marched at dozens of schools protesting against the latest round of Common Core aligned high-stakes standardized tests. Teachers and principals who were forced to sign agreements that they would not reveal specifics from the Pearson designed tests, complained that the tests included confusing questions that did not reflect recent curriculum changes.

In an email to parents, Elizabeth Phillips, the principal of P. 321 in Brooklyn, praised the children who were "wonderful and worked incredibly hard" during the three grueling days of testing from April 1 to April 3, but said that teachers and administrators were "devastated by what a terrible test it was and how little it will tell us about our students." She charged that there was "inappropriate content," "highly ambiguous questions," and "a focus on structure rather than meaning of passages."

In a follow up essay published by The New York Times, Phillips wrote:

"I'd like to tell you what was wrong with the tests my students took last week, but I can't. Pearson's $32 million contract with New York State to design the exams prohibits the state from making the tests public and imposes a gag order on educators who administer them. So teachers watched hundreds of thousands of children in grades 3 to 8 sit for between 70 and 180 minutes per day for three days taking a state English Language Arts exam that does a poor job of testing reading comprehension, and yet we're not allowed to point out what the problems were."

In her Times essay, Phillips, who has been an elementary school principal for fifteen years, wrote, "we were not protesting the Common Core standards. We were protesting the fact that we had just witnessed children being asked to answer questions that had little bearing on their reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools."

In this case I disagree with Phillips. I no longer think you can separate the high-stakes tests from the Common Core standards. Common Core, which Pearson was instrumental in creating, focuses on measuring detextualized skills rather than things that are important for students to know and understand. It was designed for testing, rather than for teaching and learning.

Instead of insulting people who disagree with them, I would like John King and Arne Duncan to answer the following five questions. I am pretty sure the answer to each of the questions is a resounding "NO!", but I am prepared to lesson to evidence that supports a different response if they can provide any.

1. Is there any evidence that the national Common Core standards when implemented in schools actually improve student learning?

2. Is there any evidence that the high-stakes assessments accurately measure anything other than test prep and the socio-economic status of students?

3. Is there any evidence that placing major stress on students, teachers, and families to pressure students to perform better on high-stakes standardized tests improves student education?

4. Is there any evidence that the Common Core standards and the high-stakes assessments better prepare students for college and careers?

5. Is there any evidence that the Common Core standards and the high-stakes assessments better prepare young people to be active citizens in a democratic society?

A study done by the Economic Policy Institute that I recommend both King and Duncan read found that poorer relative performance by U.S. students on international tests reflected the larger percentage of students from poorer families in the United States who took the tests rather than school curriculum. Schools were not the problem, poverty was.

Educational officials in the United States like to cite Finland, a country where students consistently score at the highest levels on international tests, as a country to emulate. What they fail to either notice or report is that in Finland students are not exposed to a high-stakes testing regime and constant test prep. One study even suggests that their stellar performance results from not having to constantly take standardized tests.

Suspiciously, much of the so-called evidence supporting Common Core, high-stakes standardized tests, and constant test prep is promoted by Pearson, the same company that profits from selling the tests, the test prep material, and the data they mine from student scores on the tests.

In retrospect, drama and noise are a good thing and I do not mind being called a road bump especially if we can stop destructive educational policies that enrich publishers while masquerading as reform.