A Quick Look at the Common Core

As testing begins to roll out in the first states to adopt the Common Core standards, we thought it would be useful to talk about Common Core–what it is and how it’s being implemented, and what that means. We’re going to keep talking about it in coming weeks and weighing in with what we think, but thought an overview was the best place to start.

What is Common Core?

The Common Core Standards are benchmarks in English and Math that spell out the skills students should have at each grade level. Common Core is often explained as a guide to help states as they write their curricula, although some critics are fearful that the standards are intrusive and limit teacher authority and independence.  States still devise their own standards, tests, and curricula, but the Common Core standards detail what skills students are expected to develop each year, and provide lists of ‘exemplary’ reading material.

Common Core was proposed, developed and adopted in an effort to ensure that students all over the country would graduate with the same “skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, careers, and life” according to the Common Core website. This push for new standards developed out of a recognition of the wide variations in college readiness across state lines (so, for instance, a high school student might be qualified to graduate according to Florida standards, but not by Indiana standards. This also meant that many students were placed in mandatory remediation classes upon enrolling in college).
Who developed Common Core?

The Common Core was developed by a committee made up of educational organizations, and high ranking education officials. One of the key architects was David Coleman (who is also currently serving at the President of the College Board), so his is a name you may see in discussions associated with the Common Core. Coleman and many other officials have been emphatic in their explanations that teachers played an integral role in developing the standards as well.

Over the past few years, two groups–Super Balance (composed of representatives from 23 states) and PARRC (composed of representatives from 17 states)–have been at work developing the standardized tests to evaluate the implementation of Common Core.

Where is it in place?
To date, 44 states and the District of Columbia have adopted the Common Core standards and are in the process of aligning their curricula and standardized tests with them.

Why is everyone talking about it?
States that adopted the Common Core standards are beginning to roll out new standardized tests designed for the new Core-aligned curriculum. This is getting a great deal of attention because student scores are expected to drop significantly (as they did last year in some early adopter states). Although this is anticipated–and in fact part of what Common Core is aiming to address–this is big news given the way standardized test scores are used. Student test scores have been (and continue to be) incorporated into evaluations of teachers and principals, affect decisions about student promotion to other grades, and affect teachers’ job status as well as school viability.

This is a result of High Stakes Testing. With this kind of testing, we’re measuring yearly learning by precise metrics but also tying funding, promotions, and performance reviews to those metrics. This places immense pressure on students, teachers, and schools to score highly on these tests.

This model is often referred to as “Test and Punish”–students are tested, and if they perform poorly, they don’t progress to the next grade, their teachers are reviewed poorly (student test scores can account for significant proportions of teacher evaluations), and their schools are at risk for not qualifying for additional funding. With all of this pressure placed on exams, the emphasis in classroom tends to turn to those exams and how to score well on them.

…which brings us back around to that expected drop in performance. There’s an understanding that the standards are purportedly being raised across the board, meaning that the tests will be harder than previous years, and scores are expected to reflect this. However, it appears that those scores still receive as much weight in evaluating performance as they have under the No Child Left Behind Act and other previous initiatives.

In the past few months, teachers and education advocates have been speaking out against having the standardized tests count in significant reviews, arguing that the tests are being introduced before the curricula is fully available to put into practice. It is worth noting that members of both Super Balance and PARRC (the groups who made the tests) have stated that this year the tests themselves are what’s being tested, not necessarily students. However, this argument, and many of the calls for pauses in using tests for these first few years do not address the overall practice of using standardized tests to enforce the standards instead of evaluating them.

Read More
NPR’s Common Core FAQ is a useful introduction
Al Baker’s article and Jessica Lahey’s NYT Parenting Blog Post are also good introductions

From Us: We’re planning on writing about Common Care as tests roll out, so stay tuned, and check back here for links to the latest post.
Similarities between Communism and the Common Core, by Kevin Miklasz


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