Common Core and testing, part two

Yesterday, I wrote about Common Core and testing, and it generated a lot of interesting responses.  A lot of actual teacher-type people defended Common Core, said they use the curriculum in their classroom and like it.  As I said in my post yesterday, I don’t actually have a problem with the Common Core curriculum.  Of course, I also said that I had a huge problem with it, which suggests a certain confusion on my part.  So let me clarify.

One veteran teacher I respect said she liked the Common Core approach to teaching math.  It was initially confusing, she said (the problem that Louis C. K. had with it), but if you persevered, it allowed you to understand mathematics at a deeper, profounder level; not just how to solve a problem but the underlying principles informing problem solving.  I believe her.  Another good friend liked the creativity in the Common Core arts curriculum.  So that’s good too.

The conservative critique of Common Core is that it’s a prime example of federal overreach, on a par with (shudder) Obamacare.  Well, I like the ACA; I like Obamacare.  And I find that kind of ideological opposition to Common Core misplaced.  Silly, in fact.

I believe that Common Core works.  I think that it’s a valid and interesting approach to the ever-vexing problem of curriculum.  (NOTE: SKIP THIS NEXT BIT, IF YOU WANT TO). I’m sort of an amateur medievalist, and the entire 9th-14th centuries of scholasticism were obsessed with questions over curricula.  Should they teach the Trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric), or should they also add the Quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy).  One of my heroes, Pope Sylvester II, was accused of witchcraft, because he dared teach his students the Quadrivium.  And because he used (disgusting!) Arabic numerals.  And used (horrors!) an abacus. (Still trying to figure out how you taught mathematics before the invention of the zero.  But I digress.  Like, massively.  Sorry).

Ahem.  Sorry.  Anyway, Common Core; I’m fine with it.  What I dislike is the notion that it should be universal, compulsory, the One and Only True Curriculum.  Shouldn’t there be choice?  Surely with all the Education PhDs out there, someone could create a rival curriculum?  Let teachers decide.  Lay out some possibilities.  Teachers all have strengths and weaknesses, and maybe what works great for one teacher, another teacher balks at.

When I think of the most important and influential teachers in my life, what I remember first and foremost was how strong their personalities were, and how their teaching was an expression of those personalities, an extension of who they were.  I studied playwriting, for example, from Sam Smiley.  I found his approach to playwriting astonishingly uncongenial.  He based it on his own bastardization of Aristotle’s Poetics, and he wanted us to break down our play into beats before we wrote a single word, and I just couldn’t do it his way.  And as a person, we were polar opposites.  He was a runner; I don’t run; he was a socialist, I was (then), pretty conservative.  But I loved Sam, and I learned more from him than from anyone else, and his lessons ended up informing my own writing. Not my approach, but the final product.  He wanted us to figure out the structure, then draft the play.  I can’t do that.  I need to draft the play, then go back and figure out the structure.  But we get to the same place.

So what I’m hearing from teachers is exactly what I would expect to hear; some teachers say ‘hey, I like Common Core, it works well for me.’ And other teachers say ‘I loathe Common Core; it’s awful.’  That doesn’t strike me as a problem; it strikes me as a wonderful opportunity, for genuine diversity and the unleashing of creative energy.  In fact, that kind of difference is what education should embrace.  And I don’t have the slightest problem with the idea that kids in Maryland are learning slightly different material than kids in Wyoming are learning, or even that kids in Miss Johnson’s third grade class are learning slightly different stuff than the kids in Mrs. Smith’s class across the hall. I mean, I’d have a problem with it if Miss Johnson was passionately committed to the belief that 3+6=11.  I don’t want either of them to teach anything that’s actively untrue. And sure, you don’t want Mrs. Smith’s kids to go to fourth grade and have no idea what’s going on–you want her 3rd grade curriculum to dovetail, more or less, with the curricula taught at the next level. In broad, general terms, there should be some agreement on what basic stuff is being taught.  So there’s a continuum here, between ‘absolute anarchy’ at one end of the scale and ‘micromanaging’ on the other end of it, but I really don’t think it should be all that hard to agree to meet somewhere in the middle.

So, by all means, let’s embrace Common Core.  And let’s equally embrace five other curricular approaches.  Let teachers choose.  Let them mix and match.  What’s wrong with a smorgasbord approach to education?

But one thing everyone agrees is this: standardized testing has to go.  All of it.  Permanently.

I taught for twenty years at the university level, and during that time, I probably gave a thousand tests, probably a lot more.  I think tests can be an immensely valuable pedagogical tool. I like tests.  I never once gave a multiple choice/matching/true false type test.  I think they’re worthless. I gave essay tests.  But I like tests.  I think it’s important to figure out how well kids are getting it, and above all, how well they’re thinking. And I tried to grade them carefully.

That’s the value of tests–they serve an invaluable and legitimate pedagogical purpose, for some teachers. Other teachers don’t like them, don’t use them, and find other ways to figure out how their kids are doing with the material. (For idiosyncratic reasons of my own, I refuse to use the fashionable buzz words ‘assessment’ or ‘learning’ or ‘learners.’)  Anyway, I think tests should up to teachers, a tool that some teachers use and that some teachers don’t use.  Up to the teacher.

But if a teacher does use tests, then those tests results should be entirely between her and her students, or, perhaps, between her, her students and their parents.  Sharing test results with anyone else strikes me as completely inappropriate.  The purpose of administering a test is to help the student, to give the student some idea of how well she’s mastering the material, and what she needs to work on.  And to give the teacher an idea of where she can best help the student.  And, sure, I can see some advantage in involving parents in that process.  But that’s absolutely it.

But sharing the results of a test with someone else?  With the principal?  With an administrator?  With the school board?  With the government?  To share a private communication with anyone not involved in that most sacred interaction, between student and teacher?  I cannot even begin to express my outrage at the very idea of it.

And then to hold test results over a teacher’s head, to use it to threaten and intimidate, to say ‘your pay depends on your student passing this test?’  To say ‘your school will be punished if your student doesn’t pass this test.’  To say that basic resources you need in order to teach effectively may be denied you if your students don’t do well on a standardized test?  Nothing corrupts the education process more than that.  It’s completely immoral.  It’s disgusting.  It warps everything sacred and pure about the educational experience.

One thing you hear is that the standardized tests are so important to teachers that they’ll teach to them; that it warps both curriculum and pedagogy.  Of course that’s entirely true.  It’s a basic scientific principle that the act of observing any phenomenon changes its behavior.  We see it in American education, the way testing warps and twists and harms the entire profession.  I just think it’s worse than that.  It’s a profanation of education.  It changes the very nature of the teacher/student relationship.  Instead of a test being a potentially valuable tool, another positive teacher/student interaction, it makes kids stress over something that doesn’t benefit them at all.  It makes teachers complicit in their own loss of autonomy.  It turns academic freedom into a sick, sad joke.

The only positive of standardized testing, the only place where testing has some limited integrity is this: it clarifies, as nothing else could, the absolute contempt in which political elites hold teachers.  Politicians love paying lip service to teachers, love using teachers as props in political rallies, love making pro forma protestations of how much they care about education.  But testing gives the lie to all of it.  If you’re a teacher, know this: they do not trust you, they do not respect you, they do not honor what you do.  When they say they do, they’re lying.  How can you know that?  Testing.  It’s an exact expression of their contempt.  Every standardized test carries the message ‘we don’t think you’re doing a good job.  We don’t trust you.’

Okay, they’re not all villains, and I mean, I do get the appeal.  The President, the Secretary of Education, governors and state school boards and local school boards and congresspeople, they’re all pro-testing, because what they want is certainty.  They want proof, solid data, irrefutable evidence that kids are learning, that school is a good investment.  But teaching is too important to allow for that kind of certainty.  Teaching is not a science; it’s an art form. It’s measured in lives changed, not in numbers, not in test scores.

How do we fix it?  First of all, let’s be clear about our objectives.  I want all standardized testing to end, immediately and permanently, at all grade levels in the United States.  That’s what I’m about, and that’s what I’m aiming for.  Here are some possible ways for this to happen (and I’m in favor of all of them.)

Civil disobedience.  Remember Clark County Nevada, those three administrators who were caught altering test scores?  Or the same thing in El Paso, Texas?  Or how the same thing has happened in forty other states?  Or in twenty three California schools? Some people have gone to jail over cheating. And yes, that’s deplorable. So wrong, so criminal.  Or, let’s call changing test scores part of a protest movement and do it everywhere?  A lot of parents are opting their kids out of testing.  I’m sympathetic, but wouldn’t it be more effective to let your kids take the tests, but tell them to fail on purpose?  Make it kind of fun?  These tests don’t matter to the kids, at all.  Why not turn them into a national joke?  Cheat more, not less.  Civil disobedience, man.  Far out.

Lawsuits.  When I was teaching at BYU, a lot of professors (myself included) would put graded tests in a box outside our offices, let students pick them up.  We got a memo from the college saying we should stop doing that, because it was a violation of student privacy to let other students paw their their tests while looking for their own.  In retrospect, I think our college was right on this issue, and that I was wrong.  I know the government will argue that they’re not sharing individual test results, but only aggregate scores, but I don’t think it matters.  I think a law suit, suing the federal government for violating student privacy by sharing their test scores could very well win. At least, it’s a tactic we should try.

Finally, of course, we need to make our voices heard by politicians across the entire political spectrum.  If ‘opposition to Common Core’ becomes another conservative cause (which is where it’s trending), it will lose.  This has to be a bi-partisan issue, Republicans and Democrats united in opposition to standardized testing.

I really think this is an issue with some energy right now.  Let’s speak up.  Let’s write, text, email, phone, organize.  Power to the people! Power to the people, right on.  And while we’re at it, raise teacher pay.  That would help too.



7 thoughts on “Common Core and testing, part two

  1. Jonathan Langford

    Several thoughts…
    – First, Common Core isn’t a curriculum. It’s a set of learning objectives. It’s what students are expected to be able to do, not how to teach it to them. Granted, that’s halfway to being a curriculum–but it’s not the whole way.

    And from what I’ve seen, most of the changes of emphasis in the Common Core are positive ones. More student reading of informational texts. More analysis of challenging texts, earlier. More emphasis on mathematical problem-solving, as opposed to applying algorithms. So while I’m sure there are points that should be tweaked, overall, I think it’s a positive direction.

    – Personally, I buy into the idea of a nationally standardized set of educational goals — for a variety of reasons, but mostly because I think that once we get past endless tweaks and differences in *what* we’re teaching, we can set teachers and educational materials developers free to focus more on effective methods of teaching that content that will connect to specific students, using methods such as the lesson study system that aren’t more widely used in the U.S. mostly because we don’t provide enough time and support for teachers in doing so, but also because there’s so much confusion about goals that it’s very hard to meaningfully collaborate.

    – I also think that learning objectives need some form of measurement that is tied to the objective. That doesn’t have to be a standardized exam; it can be a portfolio, a set of performance objectives, etc. However, I have personally seen that without some kind of assessment of learning, it’s far too easy for teachers, principals, and parents to focus on the activities they want to do (and those children are well-prepared to succeed at), and not those that actually result in important learning. Which are not always the same thing.

    – I agree that standardized tests can be and often are misused. But a lot has to do with the quality of the test. Back when I was teaching freshman composition in California, there was a standardized test that was used as a diagnostic across the UC system to identify students who were not ready for college-level reading and writing, and therefore needed some form of additional support. (What form the support took was up to the individual campuses.) The test consisted of having students read a 1-2 page prompt and write an essay responding to what it said and taking and supporting their own position. I was surprised at just how effective it was at identifying real problems of students that really did need correcting if they were going to succeed. And “teaching to the test” wasn’t a negative thing, because you couldn’t teach to the test without building those very skills that students needed. And yes, that qualifies as a standardized test–but not a multiple choice test, which (I agree) is worse than useless at measuring a lot of things .

    One of the positives of this test was that it was something that administrators couldn’t ignore. The results forced administrators to devote the resources these students actually needed in order to succeed in school. The availability of the exam as an external measure (at our school, it was re-administered to those who had failed it before at the end of a quarter of remedial reading and writing) also helped put us as teachers in the position of being coaches–people who were on the students’ side in helping them meet a rigorous standard–instead of having students see us (and forcing us to see ourselves) primarily as gatekeepers.

    So, yeah. The problems are there. But it’s a lot more complex factors than I think you acknowledge, and a lot more value for the right kind of standardized testing, when used properly.

    1. admin Post author

      I know Common Core is essentially a series of goals, half-way towards a curriculum, as you put it, but the teachers I know call it a curriculum, and I’ll follow their lead. Utah came up with their own standards, and although they’re not much different from the federal guidelines, I’m fine with that. I think there should be several to choose from, teacher by teacher, as I said.
      I really don’t see how having rigid national standards increases diversity in teaching methods. It does the opposite, does it not?
      The California test you describe sounds fine to me. The purpose is entirely pedagogical, and results were shared with students only, in an effort to assess their needs, and tailor an academic program to those needs. I’m fine with all of that. As I say; I support testing. I gave thousands of tests in my day.
      It’s the punitive nature of national testing that I object to, and the way in which data from tests is used to measure, not student needs, but teacher competency. That’s what I think we need to get rid of.

  2. Marvin Payne

    I may get myself embarrassed by the math here, but might all the money spent in designing tests, administering them (factoring in the expense of lost time at the local level), tabulating, interpreting, and communicating results, added to the very expensive political work involved in selling the idea of Common Core to the populace, actually raise the pay of teachers to a helpful degree, if spent there instead? (It would take a Quadrivium teacher to work this out, of course.)

    1. admin Post author

      Well, you’re a fine musician, so you’d be a great Quadrivium teacher! And yes, I agree; use that money to raise teacher pay! Absolutely!

  3. Lucy

    Though I’m not as well-spoken as most of you, I do have a few thoughts on the “no child left behind” act.

    My story: I’m a mother of a highly intelligent, yet, mentally ill child, who spent twelve long years attempting to help this child graduate. She wasn’t stupid, she just had test aversion/anxiety that was so severe she’d fake illnesses to avoid them. It was rather cute at first. I’d get a call from the school nurse asking me to retrieve my sick child from school. She faked everything from tummy aches to appendicitis. And, it happened so often that, instead of rushing to school, I’d ask the nurse to send my child back to class after the test was over.

    This aversion to being tested escalated, and, albeit the existence of other contributing factors, led to two suicide attempts.

    My daughter dropped out of school, a few months shy of graduating. Her main reason? The final test required just after the “no child left behind act” was initiated.

    My daughter is a wildly creative, capable of much more than she believes she can do. I blame the government for crushing her imaginative, beautiful, spirit, and for a time, her desire to live.

    I’m 100 percent with Eric on this issue.

  4. Ben Hess

    I didn’t read through your last post’a comments–it could be I’m bringing up old news. And I understand you pointed out this is a conservative criticism of Common Core, not your own, but did anyone point out that Common Core is not actually a federal program? It gets the states that choose to participate a whopping 8% bump in Race to the Top (40 points out of 500). I found this article helpful in understanding it better:

    Regarding standardized tests… I’ve always been a good tester– as in kinda looked forward to them as a kid–which makes me super weird, I know. Working (i.e. not teaching) at a university for the last ten years, I feel like institutions of higher learning should have as much information at their disposal as possible when deciding who to admit. I wish we could test to see if students are emotionally stable enough to be away from home and function around strangers. My question is what would you replace standardized tests with in determining who is allowed into a university? Would the onus of that work fall on every individual school? Would every school be responsible for creating their own entrance exams or interview process? And what would that do to the already ballooning cost of higher education? I’m glad you want to defend teachers–I genuinely admire what they do, how they sacrifice, and how many seem to be able to wring water out of stones, as it were. But we all know some bad teachers, too. We all know some who are self-involved, or lazy, or more interested in being well-liked and grading gently than in telling students they are wrong or have performed poorly. The same way it would be wrong to demonize all lawyers, it would be wrong to sanctify all teachers. How can we know if that A in High School Civics came from a teacher with a masters degree in American government or from an assistant football coach looking to pad his résumé? Or worse, how can we know if that GPA came from a school district run by responsible administrators with a background in education, or from a district where a lawyer on the school board had his cronies appoint him superintendent (see Ogden, UT)? Short of returning to an agrarian society where only a handful of students are admitted to institutions of higher education, I don’t see a tidy way to overthrow the standardized testing machine in America; maybe the rallying cry should be “College isn’t for Everyone!” Which it isn’t–but that’s for a different comment on a different post.

    The issue I see is this: if testing shows us where students/teachers are coming up short in the classroom, shouldn’t those schools be the ones that get more resources, more attention, and more help? But if you go that route, how do you keep the tests from becoming a disincentive to perform well? If testing highlights the problem areas, how do we help the worst schools without encouraging those at the bottom of the middle to perform worse for the sake of getting more money?

    1. admin Post author

      But admissions tests, like the SAT or ACT (or LSAT, GRE, MCAT) aren’t really what I’m talking about. I don’t think those tests are really all that predictive of subsequent student success, but I’m not against them, if admissions officers weigh them against other factors.
      As for your other point, you’ve just described the Orwellian nightmare schools face when they have low-achieving students (which are far more correlated to family problems and poverty than to any other factors.) When resources are allocated based on test scores, it provides a disincentive to teach well, and an incentive to cheat like a son of a gun. The flogging will continue until morale improves.


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