Common Core and the politics of testing

When I was in high school, we had one standardized test that all male students had to take.  Female students were exempted.  It was a test administered by the Army.  (Or maybe by all the Armed Forces; don’t remember; it was forty years ago).  A military aptitude test.  I was, as it happened, very good at taking standardized tests. Aced the SAT, and the ACT, and (later) the GRE.  I hadn’t gotten the highest scores in my school, however, and wanted to on at least one.  My slightly-smarter friends had told me they planned to punt on the military test thing, because Vietnam was still a thing, and get real. I don’t actually know what my military aptitude test score was, but given the really massive military recruiting to which I was subsequently subjected, I think I did pretty well on it.  Talk about your Pyrrhic victories.

In recent news:

ITEM: at the recent Freedom Summit, in New Hampshire, a conservative gathering of some consequence, Jeb Bush was booed, not only because of his support for immigration reform, but also because of his support for the Common Core State Standards.  Congresswoman Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn) got some of the biggest applause of the convention when she said “get rid of Common Core and replace it with common sense.”  Nearly every speaker at least mentioned Common Core, and nearly all of them attacked it.

ITEM: the comedian Louis C. K. recently used Twitter to sound off on Common Core. He was trying to help his daughters with their math homework; didn’t go well.  And the daughter in question is in 3rd grade.

ITEM: At the Earth School in New York City, three teachers recently told their principal that they would no longer proctor Common Core tests, or any other standardized tests, ever, as an act of conscience.  In their letter to the principal, they said that they could “no longer implement policies that seek to transform the broad promises of public education into a narrow obsession with the ranking and sorting of children.”

ITEM: Former Slovenian President Danilo Turk has been touring the US, talking education, and saying things like “creativity must be at the center of education,”

And I got a FB message from Braden Bell.

Braden Bell is a former student of mine.  He’s now a junior high school teacher and a published novelist, and we’re still good friends.  Braden is, politically, a conservative; I’m a liberal.  I respect and admire him immensely, while occasionally disagreeing politically. But on this issue, on education, I think we’re very much in agreement.

Braden sent me this link, and I’m grateful.  It’s for a left-right alliance on Common Core and on testing.  I’m aboard.  There are a lot of issues in this country where liberals and conservatives really strongly disagree.  This may not be one of them. And wouldn’t that be nice?

Here’s the thing: I don’t really have any kind of major ideological problem with Common Core.  I don’t mind the Department of Education coming up with some ideas about what an appropriate curriculum might look like.  I know a lot of conservatives consider Common Core yet another example of federal overreach, as more big government foolishness, of Big Brother dictating to states and communities.  I don’t see it that way.  I don’t care about big government vs. limited government issues.  Most conservatives I know want a smaller government, a limited government.  The assumption is that liberals, therefore, want bigger government, more government.  But we don’t.  We could care less.  We just want government to do the things that government does well, and not do the things that government does badly.  And public education ought to be something government does well.  Pay teachers, build schools; those seem like great examples of good governance.  But Common Core goes enough beyond common sense that I can’t support it.

See, I care a lot about education.  My father was a college professor; my mother a grade school teacher of remarkable imagination and vision.  I have three aunts who were school teachers.  My grandmother was a teacher and a college professor.  I have three sisters-in-law who teach.  I was a college professor.  I think universal education is one of the greatest endeavors of any civilized society.  I love public education.  I think schools are temples.  And to the degree that Common Core rests on a foundation of standardized tests, I think it’s immensely destructive.

In other words, I don’t really get all that upset about Common Core per se.  If it were voluntary, if it merely suggested certain standards that states and local school boards could make available to teachers, I’d be okay with that.  But I loathe standardized tests.  I loathe centralized administrative control over education.  I despise anyone telling any teacher what he or she has to teach, or how he or she is to teach it.  Any program that intrudes on teacher classroom autonomy, (except for those very rare instances where teachers behave abusively), must be considered suspect and must be opposed.

What we need is a fully supported liberal arts education.  What we need is more art, more music, more theatre, more free exploration, more recess and more physical education in our schools.  And we need to eliminate all standardized tests.  All of them, without exception, permanently and completely gone.

I know the educator establishment buzz word.  It’s ‘accountability.’  Without testing, how will teachers be accountable?  But teachers are already accountable.  When you see those kids in your classroom, ready and eager to learn, you feel it.  You know how responsible you are, and how important your job is.  The kind of faddish artificial accountability that testing provides has no real-life corollary in the classroom.

This needs to be a bi-partisan issue.  We need to reject President Bush’s No Child Left Behind and President Obama’s Race to the Top. This happens to be an issue where both Bush and Obama have been listening to the wrong educational ‘reformers,’ and implementing ideas from the wrong education ‘experts.’  It’s one issue both administrations have gotten wrong.

President Bush is no longer in office, and I can see little point in attacking his signature educational reform, NCLB.  It wasn’t quite as bad an idea as the Iraq war, but it was right up there; a completely failed initiative, a treasure trove of loopy educational theory and a bonanza for the student testing industry.  But I think Race to the Top may be even worse.  Race to the top gives points to states when they do certain things approved by the bureacracy, and provides funding depending on how many points you accrue.  And how do you get points?  Teach to the test.  If teachers can brow-beat and cajole their kids into doing well on the standardized tests, then yay! You get points.  Which can then be exchanged for valuable prizes.

Check out the White House’s description of RTTT:

Race to the Top marks a historic moment in American education. This initiative offers bold incentives to states willing to spur systemic reform to improve teaching and learning in America’s schools. Race to the Top has ushered in significant change in our education system, particularly in raising standards and aligning policies and structures to the goal of college and career readiness. Race to the Top has helped drive states nationwide to pursue higher standards, improve teacher effectiveness, use data effectively in the classroom, and adopt new strategies to help struggling schools.

So look past the stirring rhetoric, and you can see how completely testing-dependent it is.  ‘Raising standards’ (as measured on tests).  ‘Aligning policies . . . to the goal of career readiness’ (as measured by tests).  ‘Improve teacher effectiveness’ (in teaching to the test).  ‘Use data effectively’ (data derived by the tests).  So in other words, we’re educating students to . . . be good at taking standardized tests.  To enable them, presumably, to . . . be good (or at least not Dilbert-ly awful) at a boring desk job somewhere.

The best possible response to this would come from the students themselves; just blow the frickin’ test off.  Do badly on purpose.  This would probably require for parents to encourage their kids to, you know, be kids, rebellious and obnoxious and unreasonable. It would be great if more teachers followed the lead of the Earth School teachers in New York and refused to participate.

But one thing we can do, left and right and center, Republicans and Democrats and Libertarians and Green Party activists alike, all of us, is agree to press political candidates on this issue, and agree never to vote for any candidate, from either party, that won’t vote to get rid of all standardized testing, forever.




2 thoughts on “Common Core and the politics of testing

  1. Braden

    Bravo, Eric! I’m reading this and finding myself all worked up to an ideological lather, humming La Marseillese (which is what I sing to myself when I’m in a fighting mood). I really believe that if enough of us, wherever we are on the political spectrum, speak out about this, it must collapse. It needs to. And quickly. I am also convinced that the vast majority of people would not be for this once they hear the basics, which you have laid out very nicely. There is so much here for us all to dislike.

  2. Blaine Sundrud

    Eric, I regularly find myself aligned with your political views, so I find myself treading new water here regarding Common Core. So let me see if I understand your objections:

    1) standardized testing is bad (force all pegs to fit the round hole or fail).

    2) … is there a 2 here? I guess I could say that you object to the corollary that If standardized testing is bad, then classroom methods that would ultimately be developed to “teach to the test” is bad – but that just seems to be a rehash of 1.

    I am not hearing any complaints from you about the actual curriculum in question here; certainly no complaints that a group of states (not the feds as the right would have us believe) got together and said, “if students would learn X that would be better than not learning X”

    So where do I disagree with you. Well… I agree that standardized tests are poor in general (they test students test taking skills… not really a viable metric for many educational goals); and STs are really bad if they become the only goal of educators (seventh rule of employers: your employees will produce whatever deliverable you are tracking independent of actual value).

    So the solution I am hearing from you is “get rid of standardized tests.”


    My concern here goes back to the question, “if not this, then what?” Is it just the matter of testing methodology? ok… I am looking for a different option on how to validate learning at a high school level in any way that allows me to check that “the students learned X.”

    Is the concern that schools would teach the core in exclusion of arts and other “non-core” subjects? Well that has been a concern for decades whenever any flavor of the month theory advocates a return to the “3-R’s” A well run school will value the arts independently of the common core, and a poorly run school doesn’t need CC as an excuse to eliminate “extraneous payroll.” I spent a number of years as a public school theatre teacher, so I understand the tenuous position the arts have in schools today.

    If I misunderstood your concern here, I would hope you correct me, but I would love to know more about what you are thinking on this.


Leave a Reply