It was not easy, but Education Secretary Arne Duncan managed to get helicopter parents to momentarily divert their attention from their bubble wrapped children. Unfortunately for him, their sights were instead turned on him over a comment that he made before state education chiefs. In defending Common Core State Standards, “Duncan said he found it ‘fascinating’ that opponents include ‘white suburban moms who -- all of a sudden -- (discovered that ) their child isn’t as bright as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.’” (1) Like all ill- conceived remarks, Duncan’s words stood in the way of his message. In the past, he put it more succinctly by stating that “too many school systems lied to children, families and communities...finally, we are holding ourselves accountable as educators.” (2)
Bush and Kennedy’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) introduced a new level of testing requirements to our education systems and schools whose students did well proudly touted their results. However, as these tests were updated to reflect Common Core standards, results took a significant hit. For example, 45 percent fewer elementary school students in Kentucky were proficient in math when compared to the year before these standards were introduced. (3) In the first year of testing under the new standards in New York State, “31 percent of students passed the exams in reading and math, compared with 55 percent in reading and 65 percent in math last year.” (4) This has led some to complain that the new tests are too difficult.
This blame the messenger attitude is not what our country needs in order to solve our education problems. The fact is that the standards in place prior to the Common Core were not ensuring our competitiveness in an increasingly globalized economy. The United States ranked 17th in the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). (5) In 2011 - 2012, “the World Economic Forum ranks the United States 52nd in the quality of mathematics and science education, and 5th (and declining) in overall global competitiveness.” (6) Nearly 60 percent of students entering college must take remedial courses to be ready for their course work. (7) In the words of a member of the Common Core validation committee, these standards “are better than 85 or 90 percent of the state standards they replace. Not a little better. A lot better…that’s really a comment on the abysmal quality of these state standards.” (8) Moving backwards is not an option.
A credible argument can be made that students are already subjected to too many standardized tests. A study of one Eastern school district found that students spent 50 hours per school year taking required tests and assessments and another 110 hours preparing for these tests. (9) This leaves less time for actually imparting knowledge to students. However, once again tests under the Common Core standards are an improvement over what existed before. In an effort to “prepare students for college and careers” they are not tested on knowledge alone but must apply what they have learned. (10) The mastery of test taking skills is deemphasized as multiple guess tests are replaced with written answers. Fill in the blank math questions are replaced by questions that answer the age old question of “how will I ever use this in real life?”
Even more problematic than the time that is spent on these tests is the high stakes that have been attached to them. Rather than simply measuring the progress of students, they have become the standard by which the entire system is evaluated. Teachers with high failure rates are threatened with dismissal. Schools are threatened with closure. Districts are threatened with state takeover. Unfortunately, the resulting pressure falls on students and increases their stress levels. Children should be free to take these tests with the simple instruction that they should simply do their best and knowing that the only outcome of a bad result will be more focused instruction so that they can improve their results.
The other effect of high stakes testing stems from the fact that districts tend to tailor their curriculum to match the emphasis of these tests. The Common Core standards only include English language arts and math because these “are areas upon which students build skill sets which are used in other subjects.” (11) Unfortunately, this only works if districts take their eyes off of test results long enough to pay attention to the other subjects. Of particular concern is arts education which had been diminishing even before the implementation of the Common Core standards. Ignoring these other subjects not only deprives students of the ability to explore other areas and interests but diminishes the ability to reach the goal of global competitiveness.
From Henry Ford and his ability to bring the automobile to the masses to Steve Jobs and his ability to create consumer markets that did not exist before, our past success as a country has resulted from our ability to innovate. This requires not only education but the ability to be creative. If our education dollars are an investment in our future, we need to see beyond testing and a common core to ensure that the educations we provide are well rounded.
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