Nel's New Day

September 21, 2013

Danger of Common Core Standards

Teaching styles represent a history of repetitive trends on a circular basis. Anyone who stays in education will see an abandoned system of teaching return in a few decades. A decade ago, the federal government decided that all states should be required to follow No Child Left Behind, but that system has been left behind for “the next big thing” in education reform called Common Core State Standards. Thus far the system has been accepted by at least 44 states.

Although the word “state” is in the headline, the standards are actually national ones, developed by Gates-funded consultants for the National Governors Association (NGA). The purpose was to avoid federal restrictions on a national curriculum. States accepted the Common Core in order to get federal Race to the Top grants and waivers for No Child Left Behind mandates.

Claims for Common Core is that it:

  • Represents a tighter set of smarter standards focused on developing critical learning skills instead of mastering fragmented bits of knowledge.
  • Requires more progressive, student-centered teaching with strong elements of collaborative and reflective learning.
  • Equalizes the playing field by raising expectations for all children, especially those suffering the worst effects of the “drill and kill” test prep norms of the recent past.

The goals are well-meaning for those who want a standardized method of testing across the nation. Part of the fault with No Child Left Behind is that states could set up their own testing levels. Students in some states, particularly in the South, appeared to excel because the tests were easier than in those required in the Northeast and Northwest.

Yet the Common Core program has serious problems:

  • Academics and assessment experts—many with ties to the testing companies—have written the materials. K-12 educators were mostly used to tweak and endorse—and legitimize—the results.
  • Standards have not been implemented and tested in schools anywhere. No research or experience exists to justify the claims that all students will graduate from high school “college and career ready.”
  • New tests are considerably more difficult than current state assessments, leading to sharp drops in scores and proficiency rates. Because there is no relationship between the testing of the present and the past, schools cannot assess any progress.
  • The standards are tied to assessments still in development that must be given on computers many schools don’t have.
  • The tests are rife with mistakes, and the computer systems lack enough memory to allow test-taking without interruptions. Sometimes students had to take the same tests several times because of computer glitches. When Pearson Inc. scored tests to determine entry into gifted and talented programs, 13 percent of K-3 students, qualified for these programs, were wrongly rejected.
  • The corporations encourage new standards and new tests to make money. The Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank, estimates implementing the new standards will cost the nation between $1 billion and $8 billion. Nearly all the profits will go to book publishers and test creators like Pearson and CTB/McGraw-Hill.
  • Bilingual students have to take tests in English before they have mastered the language which requires five to seven years. Students with special needs are also required to take these tests with few accommodations.
  • Students with Pearson’s textbooks have an advantage on the Pearson’s tests.
  • Students are required to take additional tests for corporation research without being paid for the testing.
  • Tests use product placement, including corporate brands Mug™ Root Beer, IBM™, Lego®, FIFA® and Mindstorms™.  Eighth-grader Isaiah Schrader wrote about how he “found the trademark references and their associated footnotes very distracting and troubling.” Schrader argued that even if they weren’t paid, Pearson should not advertise to children, who are especially susceptible to advertising.  Now that’s critical thinking!
  • Tests reflect questions that many educated adults cannot answer. Charlotte Danielson, a highly regarded mainstream authority on teacher evaluation and a strong supporter of the Common Core, said, “If I had to take a test that was entirely comprised of items like that, I’m not sure that I would pass it—and I’ve got a bunch of degrees.”

No Child Left Behind mandated testing every student every year in every grade from 3 to 8 in order to keep federal funding. In its ten years, the program created a sense of failure and attempts to “fix” schools that laid the entire blame on the teachers. At the end of this time, more than half the schools in the United States were on lists of “failing schools,” and the rest were close behind. No one considered that these test scores reflected the inequality existing in the nation’s schools. Separating out the scores showed the long-existing gaps in outcomes among student subgroups, but the system was set up to label schools as failures without providing any resources or support to improve them.

The tests from the last decade indicated that millions of students were not meeting existing standards, but the solution from Common Core sponsors is “more challenging” standards. If students couldn’t accomplish what was expected by earlier tests, then Common Core would merely create more difficult tests. The new reform fails to target the inequalities of race, class, and educational opportunity that past test scores show. Common Core unintentionally plans to copy the past decade of public school failure.

Hundreds of millions of dollars is being spent to create not only these tests but also heavy-handed, top-down policies to evaluate educators. Race to the Top, for example, ties test scores to teacher evaluations. Thus teacher choose to put classroom learning aside so that they can teach to the test, decreasing student creativity.  A 2011 teacher survey revealed that 66 percent of teachers said the testing focus on reading and math led to reduced time for art, science and social studies.

Many administrators solve the problem of lower test scores by cheating, documented in more than 37 states. An El Paso superintendent is currently serving jail time for cheating and forcing low-scoring students to drop out of school, and Atlanta (GA) had a scandal involving 35 educators from the superintendent on down.

Costs of tests will take funding away from education, and failing scores will exonerate officials who close public schools to open more privatized charter and voucher schools. Yet these schools won’t accept low-scoring students. Students with disabilities, bilingual students and students with various behavioral issues are routinely denied access to charter schools for fear of lowering the schools’ test scores, which charters rely on in an attempt to appear superior.

Corporations are profiting from standardizing teachers as well as students. Pearson’s new assessments, already adopted by seven states, requires a written examination and a 20-minute video of the person teaching at a cost of $300. Anonymous current or retired teachers or administrators will be paid $75 to evaluate these videos. From its profits, Pearson helps fund Jeb Bush-funded conservative educational policy advocacy organizations, Foundation for Excellence in Education and Chiefs for Change, that are writing state laws benefiting corporate funders.

Last spring students, parents, and teachers in New York schools complained about tests’ length, difficulty, and inappropriate content. Pearson Inc., which developed the tests, included its logos and promotional material in reading passages. Students met the tests with shock, anger, tears, and anxiety, and administrators asked how to handle tests students had vomited on. Teachers and principals complained about the disruptive nature of the testing process and many parents encouraged their children to opt out.

The history of No Child Left Behind represents education’s problem from the dismantling of public education in urban areas and the growth of inequality and concentrated poverty. Because of Common Core, teachers no longer have any control over teaching and learning in their own classrooms. Distant bureaucracies have taken the decisions from educators and schools. Corporations preparing standards have revised history, politics, and culture into a sanitized version that reinforces official myths.

Failure in the schools because of Common Core will drive students into charter schools because of the myth that they provide a better education. Pearson is a good example of that. The company selling its testing materials to 18 states as well as Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico also owns Connections Academy, the company that runs for-profit, virtual charter schools. A five-year contract with New York for tests materials gets Pearson $32 million; Texas is worth $500 million. And Pearson current owns the GED program although competitors are creating cheaper alternative tests.

Even more damaging is the school-to-prison pipeline. A new study shows that students who fail high stakes testing exams are 12 percent more likely to be incarcerated.

The right-wing opposes Common Core standards because they promote critical thinking and communication. I oppose the standards because they stop the very skills that they purport to teach. A decade of testing students has not increased the nation’s standing among other countries or produced a more intelligent set of citizens. We need to stop testing and start teaching.


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