Reading & Reacting: Can We Rescue the Common Core Standards From the Testing Machine?

Photo: Shredder ... 23rd Aug 1994

cc licensed ( BY NC ) flickr photo by srv007

By Peter Greene @ EdWeek’s Living in Dialogue blog

Continuing the exceptional Common Core run that Anthony Cody has been riding is guest writer Peter Greene. In this commentary, he raises a point that has more resonance than many educators may yet realize, namely the link between the Common Core State Standards and the coming onslaught of a high stakes testing leviathan.

Greene begins by conceding his own initial effort to accept and find the good in the Common Core. He echoes what he calls a “refrain” uttered by many teachers, who by the way are almost programmed to try to find the good in most things. It is normally a wonderfully human and nurturing trait which serves many teachers well, but in the current context is functioning more as an occupational hazard.

The Common Core standards could really work – we just need to get rid of the high stakes tests…

I can remember thinking like that. I can remember looking at the standards and thinking, “Many of these are actually fine.” (I should note that I teach at the high school level, not elementary.) In fact, one of my earliest complaints about the CCSS was that they were one more example of folks telling us to do things that we already did. And I don’t think there’s a teacher alive who wouldn’t relish the promise of freedom to pursue the standards in any way they deemed best.

I must admit that I experienced a similar path of thought, albeit I am probably a bit more skeptical and cast a jaundiced eye at the Common Core State Standards earlier. There are a number of reasons for this, however.

For one, I currently work in a high performing Massachusetts high school, routinely rated in the top twenty of the state. Additionally, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has been one of the top three ranked states in the nation. Of course, one can argue that the nearly all rankings of schools are dubious, and I would be inclined to agree.

It is no secret that the what are considered to be the best schools remarkably correspond to the wealth of the community, and the community where I work is no different.

Fortunately for me and, I think, my students, I have worked in more than one school, including one in a much more diverse and urban setting. Yet, as far as I could tell at the time our standards were operating just fine.

Also, Massachusetts has been a long established leader in education for some time. Despite the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment System (MCAS) being little more than a test and not a system, it was a pretty decent test in English Language Arts. In fact, it was the envy of many states.

My exposure to the Common Core was actually much earlier than most. In the interest of full disclosure, I began working on the Gates funded Literacy Design Collaborative project when it was still in its infancy. Thus, I started becoming familiar with the Common Core even before Massachusetts adopted it. Truth be told, however, considering how hard Massachusetts was courted to adopt the Common Core, adoption seemed an inevitability. That project and early exposure did plant the seeds of deep ambivalence.

Initially, I thought many of the objections to the Common Core were overstated. At least at the high school level, I felt like the standards did differ from the preexisting frameworks but not so dramatically that it warranted a revolt. However, I have since grown significantly more concerned about the Common Core as a parent of children entering elementary school. My children entering school sparked a decisive shift in my thinking.

Still, I remember thinking something very similar to this.

“You know,” I thought at one point. “If it were possible to just use these standards as a rough guide to follow as [I] thought best, and we got the government to stop testing, I could live with this.”

And that was the moment when I knew that, no, the Common Core standards were not pure of heart and I would never learn to love them.

The realization struck me much like the thunderbolt Greene shares. In the aftermath of that jolt, the truth became much clearer. There is no decoupling of the Common Core from the testing regime that will be used to enforce its design for accountability – accountability for students, accountability fro teachers, accountability for schools, accountability that is now spilling over the K12 brim and into higher education.

As Greene elaborates, “Since they were designed to hold teachers accountable, they were designed to be tested.” High-stakes testing is embedded in the Common Core’s DNA, which Greene seizes upon with evidence and insight.

Then he advances the connection, building on the ignoble legacy of the No Child Left Behind, to suggest that despite the myth-making which promotes the notion that much of the edreformy agenda is comprised of “separate and discrete pieces.”

The Common Core standards are part of a coordinated interlocking machine, and its creators will never let you take only a piece of it home. The testing regimen is not its own separate thing that can be just thrown out any more than it was its own thing when it was the engine of NCLB. If you want only one cog, you can’t extract it from the machine.

While many might be quick to dismiss this as conspiracy theory rubbish, we all continue bearing witness to an unfolding cautionary tale. One where some of the greatest strengths of the profession, a willingness to look and find the good, are being used as weapons against teachers, based on another unfounded myth that American schools are failing.

Unfortunately, the ease with which claims like Greene’s can be dismissed by those unmotivated, inattentive, apathetic or more makes it that much more dangerous if what he suggests comes to pass. By the time a critical mass is ready to rise, the battle will already have been lost, if it hasn’t been already.

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