Is there a cure for the Common Core?*

Former CPS principal and current University of Illinois/Chicago Leadership Center specialist Paul Zavitkovsky is a long-time friend and one of the more thoughtful people with whom I regularly (and then only partially) disagree.

Over the years, we have agreeably disagreed about the value and danger of standardized tests. He doesn’t think they are inherently bad, though he acknowledges that they are often misused. I think that they are inherently bad and that they are misused to such a horrible extent that they should be pulled from the shelves until educational leaders prove they can use them responsibly.

With standardized testing now morphing into Common Core assessments, I just see more red flags.

And even Paul is worried, according to his thought-provoking new essay, Testing and the Common Core, which was recently published in Catalyst. He claims that the Common Core “is all about deep understanding” rather than sets of facts and skills. Yet the No Child Left Behind version of standards and accountability “doubled down” on knowledge, creating “massive constellations of standards and performance indicators” and “equally massive systems of commercially-developed assessments.” The result? Little increase in student learning, according to research. He warns that continuing in the same manner will “doom the Common Core.”

Even those of us who think that the Common Core is more likely to doom public education rather than the other way around need to pay attention to Paul’s key concerns:

  • Studies of U. S. classrooms found a uniform pattern – “teachers spent large amounts of time reviewing material and practicing mathematical procedures without expecting students to grasp the underlying concepts on which skills and procedures were based. By contrast, teaching strategies in every one of the world’s higher-achieving countries regularly engaged students in active struggle with core mathematics concepts and procedures.”
  • “The American bias toward teaching skills and procedures in ways that are divorced from conceptual underpinnings is a familiar target of progressive reform. A major irony of No Child Left Behind is that, far from confronting this bias, NCLB led us to write standards and report test results in ways that reinforced the bias more systematically than ever. The process began when states and districts formalized standards by reducing them to lengthy lists of discrete skills and procedures. Then commercial publishers were contracted to produce testing systems that matched. On its face, this approach seemed pretty straightforward. But test publishers knew they had a problem. They knew that standardized tests are poorly designed to measure discrete skills and procedures. Publishers finessed this problem by sorting test questions into a small number of “content strands” that purport to measure mastery of specific standards. They did that knowing full well that standardized test items almost always measure more than one standard at a time, and are less about specific skills than about students’ ability to handle different kinds of academic complexity. In the end, states and test publishers fulfilled their NCLB obligations by putting their stamp of approval on a deeply compromised reporting procedure that is at best ambiguous, and at worst downright misleading. So much for scientific precision. How this could have happened on a nationwide scale without someone blowing the whistle is not really clear. What is clear is that both content strands on standardized tests, and the “know and be able to do” mantra from which they derive, reflect a skill-based mindset that is out of sync with modern learning science and runs contrary to the goals of the Common Core.”
  • Another powerful irony of No Child Left Behind is that the rise of outsourced assessment coincided with strong evidence from the research community that frequent, high-quality classroom assessment produces achievement gains that far exceed those of any other single intervention strategy.
  • Given what we know about the culture of American teaching and the power of high-quality classroom assessment, the troubling thing about current work on Common Core assessment is that we seem to be doubling down again on outsourcing, this time with tests that are being developed for teachers by the PARCC and SMARTER multi-state consortia. (emphasis added throughout)

Zavitkovsky offers as an antidote the work he and others at UIC are doing in classroom assessment, deeper analysis of test results, and teacher collaboration. That all sounds great, but seeing the direction districts like CPS are heading – stripping all teacher development days out of the school calendar, for instance – suggests that we are probably already past the point where an antidote will help. What I think we really need is a cure for the Common Core. (*Thanks to Xian Barrett for this handy phrase!)

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About the PURE Thoughts blogger
Julie Woestehoff is PURE's executive director. Julie's work has earned her a Ford Foundation award and recognition as one of the 100 Most Powerful Women in Chicago.