Test Resentment and the Politics of the Common Core

There is a growing national movement to opt one's children out of public school standardized tests, and much of its energy is flowing out of New York state, which this week debuted Common Core-aligned exams in English, created by the Pearson corporation. These tests ask much more challenging free response and essay questions than students are accustomed to, and were rolled out before many schools and teachers received all the new curriculum materials and professional development opportunities promised as part of the the Common Core movement toward higher, nationally-shared academic standards. 

New York media is filled with disgruntled parents and teachers complaining that kids simply weren't ready for these changes, and that the tests caused anxiety and fear. But the decision to move quickly was a deliberate one on the part of state policy-makers; since the exams are tied to teacher evaluations and high school graduation requirements, rolling them out sends a strong message that officials expect instruction to improve now. The risk is that the Common Core movement will lose political support as families and schools receive low test scores, and that states like New York will grade the exams on such a steep curve that their purpose–raising expectations–will be watered down. I wrote about these risks last year in my Atlantic profile of David Coleman, one of the Core's architects, and now the president of the College Board:

Perhaps the deepest political obstacle to raising academic standards for all students is that, at least initially, large majorities of those students will likely fail. Most experts believe that faithfully testing the Common Core standards would result in only a small minority of American children being declared “on track” for college or a career. Former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, a critic of teachers unions and supporter of online learning, is a hero in many education-reform circles. He is also one of the Common Core’s most vocal Republican champions. Like the pundits who argue that banks should have been allowed to fail in 2008, as a cautionary tale for world markets, Bush believes that many children, teachers, and schools may have to be declared “failing” before the public understands the urgency of school reform.

“The big fight will be coming in 2014, when we begin to implement and assess these standards,” Bush told me. “If a third are ready, what will the response of states be then? Will they do what they historically have done, which is to pull back and say ‘Oh my God, that’s not fair, excuse, excuse, excuse’? Or will they accept responsibility to say ‘That’s the fact, that’s where we are now. Maybe 40 percent of our kids are ready if we benchmark them against the world’?”

Bush’s tough-love position is easy for a former politician to take, but less so for a current elected official. After all, no governor or legislator wants to preside over plummeting test scores. Pressure to roll back the Common Core or to relax the tests may be intense.

Coleman admits that the Core will probably lead to “a short-term reduction in [test] scores,” but he seems to have made peace with this reality as a necessary hardship on the road to his academic utopia.

States have a history of lowering cut scores or making tests easier when large numbers of students–especially middle-class, suburban students–fail. In fact, it happened just last spring in Jeb Bush's Florida, which had created new, more challenging writing tests. Right now, states like New York and Illinois are in a period of education policy idealism, raising standards and warning that achievement scores might decrease. But we don't yet know how much fortitude politicians associated with education reform, like Gov. Andrew Cuomo, will have when they are confronted with growing parental protest and potentially plummeting scores. 

4 thoughts on “Test Resentment and the Politics of the Common Core

  1. Bruce William Smith

    If such states have healthy private school options available to the families unhappy with the changes in their traditional public schools, they will have a safety valve to release political steam. If they do not, the pressure on the politicians will be intense, and we may see more following the path of Senator Grassley, who would lead us back to a discreditable past, although we are in a time when schools for the future are what our children need. In that case, some of the blame will properly lie not so much on the standards, disappointing as the math ones are, nor even on the tests, but on the overuse and misuse of tests being made by some of our statistically challenged politicians.

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  2. Rose

    The tests are being used as a tool to evaluate teachers, if they are being scored on a steep curve what’s the point? Is is a punitive tool to be used for teacher evaluation. Craziness

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  3. kk

    I am one of the parents whom you describe as “disgruntled”–one of my children, along with half the children in her grade–has refused to take the tests. But guess what? The newspapers are NOT full of our stories. In fact, it seems that they (and you) are almost willfully dismissing our stories. Many of us are not boycotting because of the perceived difficulty of the tests, but because we reject the high stakes attached to these tests. We do not believe that a snapshot assessment, no matter what its difficulty, can give a true picture of what a student has learned and has yet to learn. This is especially true in the younger grades, where the whole notion of having to sit in one’s seat for 70 minutes doing something as stultifying as bubbling in a Scantron is questionable. That good teachers should be penalized for this, that schools should be closed–that’s what has us in a lather.

    On top of this, who died and made David Coleman the King of Standards? Why are his standards the only ones we should abide by? Have you not noticed how many educators have questioned their validity, again, especially in the younger grades? Are you unfamiliar with the body of research that suggests that young children learn through play? Do you seriously think that cutting out play so that teachers can focus on getting kids ready to read and write in kindergarten (as the Common Core would have) is pedagologically sound? Somehow, kids of my generation learned to read even though reading instruction didn’t begin until first grade… I could go on, but I have to get my kid to bed. Given that she is in 3rd grade, I am more concerned about that than knowing exactly where she stands on “the path to college and career readiness.”

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  4. Tommy

    I agree with kk and honestly, Dana you have disappointed me more and more with your attempted “objectivity” on the corporate reform education conversation/movement. I have noticed it more and more since your Coleman interview. Sad that you have lost perspective as to the most important aspect of the debate that is readily overlooked..HOW children learn best. Seems that most “reformers” outside of the classroom have also lost that perspective. If you did your homework, you would understand high stakes testing should have no part in this conversation and is actually just an “accountability front” for corporate profits. It shouldn’t even be mentioned as a viable part of ANY “reform”. Thank god we have David Sirota saying things like this…
    link to salon.com
    The truth is, people like David Coleman and John King have no idea HOW children learn best. Or maybe King does. His children go to a Montessori school. A school where HOW children learn best is actively reflected. Without the use of standardized tests of course since the school is also aware of its negative effects. Or, maybe King just thinks a certain socio-economic class deserves to be taught the proper way. Which I guess now would be every class but his own affluent one. I don’t know, but regardless, there comes a point where perceived objectivity comes across as just plain pandering. Especially when their foundational argument (high stakes testing) goes against everything we know on how children learn best.

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