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.