By Melissa Babcock
Now that the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) initiative has taken root in 46 states, proponents of standardized testing may find themselves with more material to bolster their opinion, while many of those who work with students every day and are responsible for their wellbeing—including their teachers and parents—are reacting much differently.
The Case for Common Core
By setting consistent and high standards in language arts and math for kindergarten through 12th graders nationwide, CCSS aims to streamline inconsistent academic expectations from state to state and address the rising number of high school graduates who are inadequately prepared for four-year colleges.
One of the goals of CCSS is to move away from more surface-based understanding of material (rote memorization and recitation of facts) toward a deeper, more comprehensive application of material to real-life situations, closing the gap between the current learning methods of secondary education and those of higher education.
According to www.get2core.org, a website devoted to information on CCSS, “The new standards are designed to ensure real understanding. The materials are designed to go deeper into fewer topics, so kids master the material instead of memorizing. At the same time, the learning is more hands-on with a focus on what students will use in life.”
The site goes on to explain that the purpose of CCSS is not to dictate curriculum or lesson plans to teachers. “For example, the math standard for eighth graders is Algebra I. The standard is an expectation that students will know and be able to apply the concepts in Algebra I to real life situations. The curriculum used to teach Algebra I are up to the teacher—lesson plans and curriculum are not set by the standards, giving teachers the flexibility to tailor their teaching to individual student needs.”
Naturally, this raises the question of whether these streamlined and more substantial standards will result in better performance on the SATs and ACTs, and vice versa. Jessica Brondo, founder and CEO of venture-backed college advisory startup Admittedly, anticipates better test scores going forward.
“We haven’t really seen anything yet in terms of the impact prep for the SATs is having on Common Core performance because the tests are so new,” she says. “However, it is my prediction that this will be hugely beneficial for students. The topics on the SAT and ACT are linked really nicely with the Common Core standards, so I can only assume that as more teachers are starting to focus on prepping students for the Common Core, it will translate to improvements on the SAT and ACT.”
Further underscoring this partnership is the fact that David
Coleman, a co-writer of the CCSS, was selected as the CEO of the College Board in late 2012. In February 2013, he informed the board’s 6,000 members of his decision to redesign the test to more sharply focus on the “core set of knowledge and skills” high school graduates need to succeed in college.
Brondo says she’s eager to see how the College Board plans to change the SAT, “because it seems that their initial ideas would make the SAT less similar to the Common Core. If that happens, I think we’ll start to see even more students taking the ACT.”
The revamped, CCSS-aligned SAT is scheduled to roll out in 2016, Coleman announced in December. The ACT is already viewed as being more aligned with the CCSS. Brondo sees an opportunity here for schools to begin incorporating SAT and ACT prep into their CCSS curricula, which brings the added benefit of more test-prep for more students.
Questioning the Standards
However, not everyone is pleased with the ideas put forth by CCSS.
Thomas Scarice, superintendent of schools in Madison, Connecticut, wrote recently in a letter to Connecticut state legislators, “This is 2014…Standardizing our work across all schools is not the answer.”
He advised state legislators to be “not cynical, but skeptical” about CCSS and to demand the evidence to support whether or not the standards are “age-appropriate for our youngest learners, whether every child should master the same benchmarks every year when we know that all children develop at different rates.”
He added, “These reforms will not result in improved conditions since they are not grounded in research, the evidence that supports professional decision-making, like a doctor or engineer. It is simply a matter of substance. The evidence is clear in schools across the state. It is not working.”
Cull the evidence from those in the know, Scarice suggested, starting with the students.
“Demand the evidence that supports coupling the Common Core to unproven tests. In just weeks, many students will sit for these new tests. They will serve as subjects to ‘test out the test.’ It is quite possible that you will hear even more from parents after the tests are administered. Be proactive and seek these answers in advance of the inevitable questions you will be asked.”
One of those in the know is West Hartford, Connecticut, teacher Liz Natale, who has been a middle school English teacher for 15 years.
“Government attempts to improve education are stripping the joy out of teaching and doing nothing to help children,” she wrote in a recent op-ed in The Hartford Courant. “The Common Core standards require teachers to march lockstep in arming students with ‘21st-century skills.’ In English, emphasis on technology and nonfiction reading makes it more important for students to prepare an electronic presentation on how to make a paper airplane than to learn about moral dilemmas from Natalie Babbitt’s beloved novel Tuck Everlasting.”
Connecticut State Representative Marilyn Giuliano has received her share of feedback on CCSS, including a lot of pushback from her constituents, which led her to investigate CCSS more deeply.
“The pace of implementing the standards is quick in that it does not accommodate various rates of student learning,” she points out. “For example, not all seven-year-olds learn at the same rate. What teachers have said to me is that the pace is very fast and unforgiving; there isn’t time to stop when kids are having difficulty. Standards are a good idea, and masteries are an absolutely critical idea, but education up until this time has always accommodated individual students’ developmental learning curves.”
Giuliano heard not only from teachers, but also from parents who had never previously lobbied her.
“Parents…came to me with real heartfelt concerns: ‘My kindergartener is saying he has to go to summer reading. I don’t want him to go to summer reading; I want him to play, but they said he’d be behind.’ Or, ‘I can’t figure out my kid’s homework; supposedly my child knows subtraction with regrouping but I don’t get this.’ Or, ‘Marilyn, my kid is coming home and saying they don’t like school anymore.’
Giuliano has also seen and heard about the effects of Common Core in her professional capacity as a school psychologist.
“I practice in a preschool-through-grade 3 environment and this is what I’m hearing,” Giuliano continues. “School is supposed to be a wonderful place when you’re a little kid. Our goal is to create a passion for lifelong learning. Now parents are complaining that kids are crying and don’t want to go to school anymore.”
According to Giuliano, it’s not just the relentless amount of testing causing difficulty for younger learners, but also the change in school-day structure that tests their attention spans. While recess and physical education are regulated by statutes and unaffected by CCSS, classes are stretching into longer periods.
Giuliano explains, “We are now teaching in long subject area blocks, and that’s a shift in practice, particularly at the elementary level. It’s common at secondary level, but uncommon at entry level. Entry-level kids have developmentally short attention spans. What you find today in school is, in order to meet CCSS, kids will spend a morning block, that could be 90 minutes, doing math or English language arts, and the same thing in the afternoon, as well.”
With more stress and less of an outlet for it, another concern opponents to CCSS raise is the psychological effect of learning to the standards. Teachers like Natale say every student learns in his or her own way. Will students feel like a failure if they don’t meet the standards?
Concludes Natale, “A student’s learning will never be measured by any test, and I do not believe the current trend in education will lead to adults better prepared for the workforce, or to better citizens.”