Tag Archives: common core

I do want a standardized test, BUT

I opted my kids out of the state Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) test last spring, joining the thousands of students and parents who felt it was fatally flawed — but the truth is that I do want my kids to take a standardized test that measures mastery of Common Core standards in math. Ironically, though, despite the millions upon millions of dollars that have been spent on Common Core assessments, the kind of test I think my kids should have does not seem to be available.

Let me back up a minute and talk about what the Common Core standards are. They’re a set of national standards, pushed on states across the country essentially by the private sector, that are clearly delineated. In the opinion of many education activists, they’re a complete mess. I won’t comment on that just now. I will say that having clearly delineated national standards in math makes sense to me. If everybody knows what’s supposed to be taught and when, that is a win. You can build off that knowledge to differentiate instruction, and you can keep track of what each child does and doesn’t know.

But oddly, that’s not what’s happening. The general concept was for the Common Core standards to be adopted by the states and for the private sector to start making textbooks and assessments and online curricula and so forth. In other words, free-market chaos.

So on the national and state level, our government is pouring enormous amounts of money into tests whose only practical purpose is to compare the performance of teachers, schools, school districts, and states according to whether or not the students have mastered Common Core standards. These are high-stakes tests. Because of the high stakes, their content is not open for public inspection, and we can’t evaluate their quality. Also, they are summative tests, given at the end of the school year to determine what was taught that year. In the case of the SBAC, the results were not available until well into the next school year.

What schools actually need are formative or interim assessments that can be used in the classroom, like we had in the olden days when schools had textbooks and the publishing company provided tests and quizzes.

But Common Core adoption has broken that this year, at least for Seattle Public Schools elementary kids. It shouldn’t have. Washington State has always had standards, and textbook companies have always adapted their curriculum to those standards, more or less. When Common Core came out, the same thing happened — apparently. The district spent several years on a textbook adoption process for elementary school and ultimately chose Math in Focus, which was supposed to be aligned with the Common Core.

This year, though, the school district has dictated that teachers abandon the “scope and sequence” (the content, plus the order in which subjects are taught) of Math in Focus and instead use a district-made “scope and sequence” document.

That breaks all the classroom tests from the Math in Focus textbooks–but doesn’t replace them with anything.

Why did they mandate the new scope and sequence? I would hazard a guess that they were told, or decided, that Math in Focus wasn’t the right textbook to prepare schools for the SBAC. Were they right? Were they wrong? Who knows! I bet that, as often happens, the private sector got way too much input in our schools.

This is the third year in a row that elementary school curriculum has been changed at our school. The district spent two years planning for a curriculum adoption. Two years ago, our school piloted a textbook called My Math. Then the district adopted Math in Focus, and we used that. Now we’re still kinda using Math in Focus but only as far as it matches the “scope and sequence.” How the teachers can adapt to all these changes, I have no idea.

And how is it going to be assessed? Probably with the SBAC. We’ve been promised formative assessments, but the tests the district got weren’t available to all schools, had serious privacy issues, and didn’t satisfy most teachers.

It’s a muddle for everybody, advanced learners included. Our school offers ALOs (advanced learning opportunities) for kids who qualify or just need extra challenge. By the end of last year, I figure that my fourth grade student had mastered all of the fourth grade curriculum, most of the fifth, and some sixth and seventh. In other words: all over the map. Next year, under normal circumstances, she’d enter sixth grade doing seventh grade math. But will she be ready?

Without appropriate assessments, I don’t see how her teachers could possibly know the answer to that question, or even what to teach her. Getting a handle on what parts of fifth grade curriculum she has and has not mastered is hard enough.

It didn’t have to be this hard. The SBAC and Amplify tests were designed top-down, to be sold to upper (mis)management. But for a whole lot less money, tests that gave the information we need could have been designed from the bottom up by teachers who are actually in the classroom with kids.

Here are the qualities I wish a Common Core assessment could have:

  1. Open and transparent (no high-stakes);
  2. Easily administered and quickly scored;
  3. Quickly given;
  4. Able to measure the curriculum in discrete chunks;
  5. Able to measure content above and below grade level;
  6. Easily modified for disability accommodations.

If such a test existed, then chances are, I wouldn’t opt my kids out.

Should I hold my breath? I don’t know. I doubt the ability of the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium to bring it to me, but efforts are being made by other organizations. For my own child, Khan Academy is a reasonable choice. But it’s not for everyone, especially kids with certain types of disabilities or kids without access to computers. There are also organizations like OERCommons and others that collect educational materials that are licensed for free use (though with no guarantee of quality). And the New York Department of Education appears to have done something clever in designing and delivering its own educational content.

But on the other hand, even in the best of times, good tests are hard to design and time-consuming to take and to grade.

All I know is, my family needs appropriate assessments for sixth grade math. And we need them now.

– Kristin

(Post updated 12/4/2015)




A Conversation about Common Core

After a year of grappling with the new Common Core standards, I feel mixed. I oppose the new Common Core assessments because they’re all part of privatization, top-down control of schools, and high-stakes testing — all those things that have come to be known as “corporate education reform.”

But I’m not sure I’m against the Common Core standards. Yes, they’re deeply flawed. They are copyrighted by a private sector organization, which means the public — that’s you and me — has no control over their content. On the other hand, I think national standards make sense. They are a way to communicate to parents what their kids are expected to be learning, and we definitely need that. Having just one set of standards also makes it easier to develop and plan curriculum at lower cost. So I’m asking myself: might it make sense to keep the standards, but ditch the high-stakes assessments?

That’s why I was excited when I saw a friend start a Facebook conversation on the topic. With the permission of the participants, I’m reposting it here — not as a debate, or the last word on the subject, but as part of the ongoing conversation on what kind of education real parents want for their kids.

Zara: I’m out of alignment with my Party and my usual allies on this one. I’ve had qualms about Common Core, especially about its sloppy, rushed, improperly-supported and counterproductive implementation. I was angry about the way it was developed, like so many recent reforms, without real educator influence and with much pressure by wealthy private individuals. However, Democrats and Progressives are very much disappointing me in their all-or-nothing, un-nuanced approach to the reality of CCS.

To throw it out wholesale at this point would be incredibly disruptive. How, instead, can we organize to make sure Common Core works the way it should? How can we assure that the test results are not used inappropriately and harmfully?

(They should NOT be tied to teacher evaluations – neither as sticks nor carrots. They should NOT be used to grade or rate schools. They should NOT be a trigger for punitive measures against schools. They SHOULD be a signal that a school needs greater, long-term, stable support – not short-term interventions (such as three-year grants) or threats of mass firings or closure.

CCS is deeply imperfect (as I understand it). The assessments are even less perfect (as I understand them) and the profit to be made from them is troubling. But I don’t believe they’re the educational, social-justice napalm my friends do. And the response from my own corner of the ring strikes me as short-sighted, stubborn, slightly paranoid and possibly harmful to our school systems, given the phase of CCS we have already reached.

I know I’ll get criticized by my allies for being ignorant or co-opted or some other unhappy thing. I’m not looking forward to it, but I felt I had to speak up – under my own name – no matter how unpopular or suspect it might make me in the anti-reform circles I generally respect so well.

Kim: People I’ve talked with would rather revert to standards we had in place prior to CCSS, and then with educator input, tweak those. And then there are others who really value a national set of standards, but they need to be developmentally appropriate, created by educators, and minimal so as not to drive everything happening in schools. Also, Pearson and Gates need to be uninvolved.

Sandi: Zara, I agree with you! I want my kids to have the same expectations and learning opportunities in our public school kids that the kids in the best public and private schools across the nation offer. If that takes a set of “standards” then so be it. I’ve always agreed to the concept, but not this current incarnation of the implementation and tests.

Recess is being cut even more than before, and kids’ progress is charted and managed like vacuum sales results, project based learning is gone in some places, and pre-scripted curriculum is rampant.

Teachers are not truly being allowed to develop curriculum to meet the standards, but are being told what to teach, when, and how.

The focus is still “learn this to pass the test,” not “learn to love learning and learn this because it is knowledge and process that will help you develop and find your passions.”

Kristin:  I’ve been thinking the same thing as you, Zara. There is benefit to be had in common state standards. And yes, changing them NOW would disrupt kids for another two to five years. On the other hand, though, they are copyrighted and can’t be tweaked.

Kim: Teacher driven education is key, and to let the testing madness continue is to let the community believe that test scores matter in ways that they do not. As Sandi points out, the testing is the serious problem. The standards are flawed, but I bet we can find flaws in all standards. And so it goes back to data collection, excessive time at the computer, too much emphasis on test scores, not enough time on subjects that aren’t tested, and so on.

Thanks to everybody for letting me post your thoughts. Readers, what do you think?

By dotmatchbox at flickr [CC-BY-SA-2.0] , via Wikimedia Commons

By dotmatchbox at flickr [CC-BY-SA-2.0] , via Wikimedia Commons

How much do the Common Core tests cost?

Last week I wrote about the ongoing failure of the Washington State Legislature to fully fund schools. They’re in contempt of court and sanctions may be taken at the end of this legislative session if adequate progress hasn’t been made. And from those charts it looks to me like adequate progress would mean an extra $1500 per year right now.

Instead of fully funding schools, though, the legislature decided to implement new standards and require every school to administer brand-new computer-based tests for them. I have to ask: how much is this all costing, and what could we have done with the money instead?

In this era of privatization and underfunding, the public needs to be especially careful with the money we have.

It turns out the answers are not easy to find. Here is my rough stab at the broad categories of expenses at the state, district, and school level.

  • For the state, the cost to buy the standardized test.
  • For the district, the cost of professional development for the teachers, and the cost of substitutes to take over classrooms while teachers are doing professional development. District-wide technical support for the computer labs. Cost of new instructional materials. Cost of software to help prepare students for the tests. Internet access and headphones.
  • For the schools, the cost to upgrade the computer technology so the tests can be administered. The cost of extra computers if two or more classrooms must give the tests at the same time. The school-based setup of the computer labs. The cost of extra proctors to give the tests. The cost of disability accommodations for students.

Do you suppose the legislature had a complete picture of these costs when they decided to require all schools in the state to take the tests? I bet not. I bet they were given cost estimates by private sector organizations with a vested interest in selling the tests.

That responsibility, then, falls to us. The public. The parents.

And ESPECIALLY to the people (you know who you are) who are always saying, “Why should I put more tax dollars into education when it’s being misspent anyway?” Be the solution, folks.

where did the money go

Who makes public policy?

Lawmakers pass laws. Lobbyists influence lawmakers and therefore the laws. But who writes the laws? And most importantly, who decides on the public policy that shapes the laws? That’s the part of government that we don’t usually see. Luckily, it’s easy to find, if you know where to look.

The private sector creates public policy. This includes for-profit corporations, nonprofits, billionaire philanthropists, and think tanks. One well-known example of the private sector creating policy is the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – read more about them here.

ALEC does their work in secret, but many organizations do the same thing out in the open. I found this out when I started learning about corporate education reform, which mostly means creating opportunities for the private sector to take public education dollars and use them to “improve” public education and control what is taught to our kids. For the public to swallow this, I learned, it took quite a bit of propaganda. Being a curious person, I researched and wrote a post on the think tanks that create the propaganda.

As it turns out, these same think tanks are holding policy discussions on topics that affect us, and our children, quite intimately. Seattle Public Schools, along with thousands of schools across the nation, is about to administer a suite of tests called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium. These tests are meant to measure student mastery of the Common Core, a set of education standards that was designed and promoted by the private sector — specifically, the National Governors Association (NGA) and the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), two nonprofits. These standards are copyrighted by the NGA and the CCSSO, meaning that any modifications to the standards are completely out of the control of the public.

Let’s go back to the think tanks for a minute. One of the think tankers I mentioned in my blog post on think tankers is named Rick Hess, or Frederick Hess. He’s a senior fellow with the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which was founded in 1943 by a combination of thinkers, business leaders, and finance leaders. It has drawn fire over the years for spreading propaganda for the tobacco industry and for bribing scientists to disseminate information that undermined legitimate research on global warming. Not a poster child for the public good.

Hess, to my surprise, came out with criticism of the Common Core. Curious as always, I poked around a bit and found that the AEI had hosted a symposium with the topic “Common Core Meets the Reform Agenda.” It asked the question: “Going forward, will the Common Core initiative complement or conflict with the school reform agendas that states are currently pursuing?” That question was tackled by people who influence policy in one way or another (see participant bios).

The papers show a debate over various corporate reform policies such as high-stakes testing, charter schools, and the Common Core. For example, here is a policy recommendation from the article “The Common Core Standards and Teacher Quality Reforms” by Morgan Polikoff.

(A quick note: There is a note on this article claiming it is a draft and asking people not to cite it. That’s silly. Since it’s online, it is published, and citations fall under fair use guidelines.)

“Because these changes are happening simultaneously, both reforms might be more faithfully applied if there were a moratorium on making high stakes decisions about teachers (e.g., hiring, firing, tenure) until after the Common Core and its assessments are fully implemented.”

So the recommendation is to implement Common Core and assessments, and then work on legislation to use those assessments to make high-stakes decisions about teachers.

That conversation ought to have occurred in the public eye and with the involvement of the public, especially the parents, teachers, and students this recommended policy will impact.

It didn’t. That’s not how our government works.

But seeing what’s going on behind the scenes does give us the ability to stop it. Knowing about ALEC, for instance, has helped us oppose dangerous laws before they are passed.

Knowledge is power.

Knowledge is Power!

My daughter, the guinea pig

We’re a very mathy family. We all learned math the way human beings learn things — that is, by making it a fun part of our everyday activities. But this year, my daughter is a guinea pig for the new national experiment that is called the Common Core standards. Her class is using a new curriculum designed specifically for the Common Core, “My Math,” and she hates it. I’m hearing her say, “I don’t like math,” and I’m concerned. She still likes math, really, but only when we mess around with it as a family. Her homework is procrastination and resentment and sometimes tears.

The Common Core standards came to us by a fairly strange route. Sixty people wrote them without public input, and only one of them was a teacher. And there’s a lot of controversy surrounding the Common Core, particularly the assessments designed for them.

I’m trying to keep an open mind. As one of my kids’ teachers told me, they’re simply one more set of standards. I do like one thing about these new standards: they tell us what our kids are supposed to be learning.

But what exactly are they supposed to be learning? Mathematical reasoning, the boring way. What makes it boring is the frequent testing to make sure kids have learned each individual concept, which appears to mean that each individual concept takes priority over a holistic understanding. Even worse: there is national pressure to base teachers’ job evaluations on kids’ mastery of these standards.

Also, it looks a lot like math fact fluency is being pushed aside. I’ve looked at the standards many times, and they do say what kind of fluency kids are supposed to have, but as one standard among many. And I’m not seeing it in the curriculum. My kids, and other kids whose parents I’ve talked to, are not getting the five minutes of math fact practice per day that they need to learn the facts.

Here are the standards, if you want to know more.

And here are some examples of math lessons that teach to these standards. The National Education Association (NEA) teamed up with some company or other to bring together lots of teachers to share the curriculum that they use in classrooms. So this curriculum is free online for browsing, which makes it a godsend for parents who want to understand what their kids are learning in class. I keep looking and looking for math fact fluency exercises, but I’m not seeing them.

I do realize that there are lots of things I don’t understand about the standards, the way they’re being implemented in curriculum, and the way my kids’ teachers are handling them in class.

But I sure am sorry my daughter has to be the guinea pig.