Questioning the Common Core tests

Kathy Baxley with her son, Matt, and her daughter, Julia. Baxley says she likes Common Core, but not the tests that come with it. (Photo: Emily Hanford)Kathy Baxley with her son, Matt, and her daughter, Julia. Baxley says she likes Common Core, but not the tests that come with it. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

This essay is a product of the larger radio documentary Greater Expectations: The Challenge of the Common Core, which you can listen to in its entirety on this website or on our podcast feed (iTunes).

Kathy Baxley is a mom and a former math teacher. She really likes the Common Core. She says the standards have changed school for her kids.

“They have to think more,” she says.

But she doesn’t like the tests that have come with Common Core.

Even before Common Core, she was uneasy about standardized testing. She didn’t think the state tests at the end of the school year were a good measure of what her kids were learning. And she says her son “started to hate school because of all the test prep.”

Now she says, things are worse. Her kids go to public school in New York, one of the first states to test students on Common Core. She thinks testing is sucking the joy out of learning, and she’s upset about all the class time taken up by the tests. Students in New York sit for up to nine hours of Common Core testing, at the end of the school year, plus interim assessments and practice tests.

Baxley doesn’t get it. “Why are they torturing these children by making them take all these tests?”

Why all the testing?

Common Core does not require states to test students, but the No Child Left Behind Act does. That law, signed by President George W. Bush in 2002, says that in order to get certain kinds of federal education funding, states must test their students every year in grades three through eight and once in high school. The law requires states to publish test results. When the law went into effect, it mandated that by 2014, every student would have to score “proficient” on those tests. States that failed to reach this goal could lose federal funding.

Getting every student to the “proficient” level was a tall order – and many states responded by making their tests easier.

“We’ve got all this testing going on in this country, and yet the results are not telling people the truth about how our students are really doing,” says Mike Petrilli, president of the Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank in Washington, D.C.

Students in North Carolina prepare for a state standardized test in 2006. (Photo: Billy Barnes)

Students in North Carolina prepare for a state standardized test in 2006. (Photo: Billy Barnes)

“We have created this impression for many parents and educators that their kids are doing fine,” he says. Then kids go to college, “and a huge number of those students are told, ‘You’re not ready. You have to go back and re-take math, re-take English, do remedial education.’”

While most students were proficient on their own state tests, only about 35 percent were proficient on a more rigorous test called NAEP, given to a sample of students across the country.
(To read a U.S. Department of Education report that compares states tests to the NAEP test, click here.)

Having many different state tests also led to confusion. It was impossible to compare how students were doing in different parts of the country.

The problem with the old state tests

Paul Richter, director of assessment for the Washoe County Schools in Reno, Nev., says the old state tests had to go. He says they were written in a way that encouraged the teaching of tricks and strategies. For example, a typical question on the old Nevada 4th grade English Language Arts test would have given students a short passage to read, then asked them to find a simile in the passage. But Richter says students didn’t actually have to read the passage, because the question was multiple-choice. Students just had to scan the answer choices, looking for the word “like” or “as.”

“If it’s got “like,” it’s a simile,” he says. “If it makes a comparison and there’s not “like” or “as,” it could be a metaphor.”

That’s the kind of test-taking trick students would learn in school, says Richter. Teachers didn’t necessarily like doing it, but getting kids to pass the tests was critical. Under the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers and principals can be fired, and schools can be shut down, if test scores are consistently low.

Richter is hopeful the new Common Core tests will be better than the old state tests.

The goal is to create tests that are more challenging and better measure the kinds of skills experts say students need in today’s economy. Back in 2009, President Obama told an audience of business leaders that he wanted to see tests “that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.”

Later that year, the federal government pledged up to $350 million to groups of states to create these kinds of tests. Two groups formed — one called the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), the other called the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC). They are state led-consortia, but virtually all of their funding comes from federal grants.

There was widespread support for the creation of the common tests. Since the federal government required testing, it made sense to create new tests to match the new standards. And standardized testing is strongly embraced by many education reformers. They view holding schools and teachers accountable for how well students are doing as a key part of improving education.

New tests

The two groups creating Common Core tests for the nation are promising tests that will be dramatically different from previous state tests. They say the new tests will be more challenging and will assess a wider range of skills and knowledge

On its website, SBAC says that its tests will “go beyond multiple-choice questions to include extended response… as well as performance tasks that allow students to demonstrate critical-thinking and problem-solving skills.” The other group, PARCC, is making similar promises.

Laura Slover, CEO of PARCC, says preparing students for the new tests won’t require test prep. No tricks or strategies, just good teaching. Teachers won’t “need to stop instruction and do something different in order to prepare” students for PARCC tests, she says.

Slover opens her laptop to demonstrate what she means. Both the PARCC and SBAC tests are designed to be taken on computer. Slover brings up a sample item from an 11th grade English Language Arts exam.

The test item asks students to read the Declaration of Independence and a passage from Patrick Henry’s speech to the Second Virginia Convention. Students also watch a short video about how early drafts of the Declaration of Independence differed from later drafts.

“And then they’re asked to write about it,” Slover says. “They’re asked to bring evidence from those multiple sources and write an essay in which they explore the perceptions of the government’s purpose presented in those sources.”

Slover is a former high school English teacher and says this is the kind of assignment she used to give to her students. “I wouldn’t have to stop instruction to prepare my kids for something like this,” she says, referring to the PARCC test item. “This is exactly what I did in my classroom.”

It remains to be seen whether PARCC and SBAC will be able to deliver on the kinds of tests they’re promising. The tests are still in development. Students start taking them in the spring of 2015. (You can try some sample questions from both tests here.)

People do what’s measured

Not every state that signed up for Common Core is planning to use one of the common tests. New York, for example, made its own tests, though a contract with the testing company Pearson.

State education officials were eager to start testing students on the Common Core right away. They didn’t want to wait until 2015. New York State Education Commissioner John King believes tests are necessary to get teachers to start teaching the Common Core.

“People do what’s measured,” he said at an education policy breakfast at NYU in the Fall of 2012. “And measuring the Common Core has to be a part of how we insure successful implementation.”

Middle-school students in Kentucky learn Common Core math. Students and teachers say Common Core is a big change, and they need time to learn the new standards. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Middle-school students in Kentucky learn Common Core math. Students and teachers say Common Core is a big change, and they need time to learn the new standards. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

But teachers were saying they needed time to learn the new standards before students were tested.

According to experts, the Common Core requires most teachers and schools to make substantial changes in the way they do things. (The New York State Department of Education put together a web page describing these changes.) Teachers all over the country say what they need most when it comes to Common Core is a chance to collaborate with other teachers to come up with new lesson plans. They also need curriculum materials and textbooks. (You can read results from teacher surveys here, here and here.)

But lots of teachers in New York say they didn’t get the time or resources they needed. It all felt rushed and messy. The State Department of Education created a website with Common Core sample lessons. Some teachers say they were required by administrators to use the lessons and even to read the lessons word-for-word to their students. One teacher said trying to teach Common Core was like building a plane while flying it.

It might not have felt this way if teachers hadn’t been so worried about how their students would do on the tests. New York was set to test its students on Common Core for the first time in the spring of 2013, just eight months after a lot of schools started teaching the Common Core. And for the first time, student test scores would be used as part of teachers’ job evaluations.

Higher stakes for teachers

The high-stakes state tests that started in 2002 with No Child Left Behind were not really that high stakes for most teachers. If you taught in a school where students did badly on the tests year after year, the state could eventually shut your school down and you could be forced to reapply for your job. But for the most part, test scores had little impact on how teachers were evaluated every year, or whether they were promoted or given raises.

That started to change a few years ago when a new idea began to take hold in education reform. The idea is to use student test scores to judge teachers – or more specifically, to calculate how much a student’s test scores change over the course of a school year and use that in a teacher’s evaluation. Most states require, or will soon require, student test score growth to be a factor in teacher evaluations. (If you want to learn more about the debate surrounding test scores and teacher evaluation, check out ARW’s 2010 documentary Testing Teachers).

Evaluating teachers by test scores is not part of Common Core, but it’s been linked to it because of money the Obama administration gave to states as part of its Race to the Top grant program. To be eligible for that program, states had to adopt Common Core (or similarly rigorous standards and assessments), and they had to put into place teacher evaluation systems that use student test score growth as a “significant” part of both teacher and school principal evaluations.

Principal Darren Raymar greets students in the morning carpool line. Raymar supports the Common Core standards, but he’s concerned about how high-stakes testing is changing education. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Principal Darren Raymar greets students in the morning carpool line. Raymar supports the Common Core standards, but he’s concerned about how high-stakes testing is changing education. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

In New York, new standards, new tests, and new teacher evaluations came all at once – and it was too much, says Jennifer Monsour, a 7th grade teacher at South Side Middle School on Long Island.

“I think Common Core is terrific,” she says. “The [standards are] important and all teachers should reach toward them.”

But she doesn’t think student test scores should be linked to teacher evaluation.

“It changes the whole dynamic between teacher and student,” she says. “And not in a good way.”

When teachers need their students’ test scores to be good, it puts too much focus on the tests, says Monsour.

Darren Raymar, principal of Covert Elementary School on Long Island, agrees.

“Teachers are very concerned about who’s going to be in their classes now, where that was never part of the conversation before,” he says

Teachers don’t want too many disadvantaged or special education students assigned to them, he says, because those groups of kids tend not to score as well on tests. If that’s the kind of change Common Core is going to bring to schools, he’d rather not have Common Core.

We barely ever do any science

The previous state testing tended to focus almost exclusively on math and reading skills, so in many schools math and reading became the priority, while other subjects were pushed aside. This was especially true in poor and minority schools, where many students struggled to pass the tests and needed extra help with math and reading. Schools that served higher-income kids could afford to spend more time on other subjects, like music and history, and trust that most students would do fine on the tests without a lot of test prep.

An education that includes music and history is what the Common Core is aimed at producing. The standards assert that all children must build a broad base of knowledge in order to be ready for life after high school. This means not just math and reading, but also science, social studies and the arts. There is nothing in the standards about what teachers should teach in these subjects, but there is an expectation that students will learn multiple disciplines and use the reading and writing skills laid out in the standards in all of their classes. The standards also emphasize the importance of speaking and listening skills, in addition to reading and writing. (You can read the standards here.)

Eleven-year-old Aidan with his younger sister Maddie. They say they spend a lot of time on test-prep at school. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Eleven-year-old Aidan with his younger sister Maddie. They say they spend a lot of time on test-prep at school. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

But while Common Core is supposed to ensure all kids acquire a broad base of knowledge, in New York, it appears to be doing the opposite at some schools. Because students need significantly better math and reading skills to pass the new tests, even higher-income schools are turning to test prep. Many schools are focusing more on math and reading than ever before.

“I have usually two to three hours of math during my school day,” says Aidan Fryling, a 6th grader in public school on Long Island. “We barely ever do any science.”

Aidan says this is a change from the way things were before Common Core. And it’s not just what they’re learning, it’s how they’re learning it.

“I just remember doing a lot more projects before Common Core. Like, a lot more hands-on projects. And now it’s a lot more sheets, packets.”

He says he and his classmates take a lot of practice tests.

Finally, we are holding ourselves accountable

Before New York students sat down to take their first Common Core tests, state education officials were preparing the public for bad news. They predicted test scores would drop by 30 percent.

That’s what happened. New York’s first Common Core test results were announced in August, 2013. Fewer than a third of New York public school students scored proficient. Even in some of the state’s best school districts, students did not do well.

And there were big gaps between how different groups of students performed. While 38 percent of white students scored proficient on the math test, only 15 percent of African American students did, and 18 percent of Hispanics. There were similar gaps on the English Language Arts test. Students with disabilities and English-language learners scored even worse on the tests.

New York Education Commissioner John King called the scores a new “baseline” and reminded the public that the new tests were harder.

Seventh-grade teacher Jennifer Monsour preparing her students for New York ‘s Common Core English Language Arts test. She thinks teachers are being blamed for the problems in American schools. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Seventh-grade teacher Jennifer Monsour preparing her students for New York ‘s Common Core English Language Arts test. She thinks teachers are being blamed for the problems in American schools. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

“These proficiency scores do not reflect a drop in performance, but rather a raising of standards to reflect college and career readiness in the 21st century,” he said. “I understand these scores are sobering for parents, teachers, and principals. It’s frustrating to see our children struggle.”

Since it was one of the first states to report Common Core results, New York’s test scores made news across the country.

“Too many school systems lied to children, families and communities,” said U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan in response to New York’s scores. “Finally, we are holding ourselves accountable as educators,” he said.

Many teachers in New York felt like they were being blamed for the bad results.

“All of a sudden we’re so vilified,” says Jennifer Monsour, the 7th grade teacher on Long Island.

She thinks there are a lot of people to blame for the problem of bad schools in America, but everyone seems to be pointing at teachers as if it’s their fault.

Monsour says she and the teachers she works with want to teach the Common Core, and they don’t need the threat of tests to make them do it. She worries that all the anxiety about bad test scores will end up hurting schools, not helping them.

“There’s so much more that goes into a child’s education than one test,” she says. And she’s afraid schools are going to forget that.

Constant test prep

Teachers aren’t the only ones upset about the testing. Many parents are too.

Brian Watson has two kids in public school in New York. He says the curriculum has been taken over by “constant” test prep. “And that was completely not the case just a couple years ago,” he says.

There are thousands of parents in New York like Watson. Their kids go to schools that were doing fine under the old testing system, but now they’re being told their schools – and their kids – weren’t doing as well as they thought. It’s exactly the reality check many Common Core supporters say was desperately needed. But parents are concerned about how their children’s education is changing.

Students in New York at a rally to protest Common Core testing, March 2014. (Photo: Ben Shapiro)

Students in New York at a rally to protest Common Core testing, March 2014. (Photo: Ben Shapiro)

“The kids hear all day long and all year long, ‘Do it this way so it’ll be right on the test,’” says parent Jeanette Deutermann. “The kids are getting a sense that it’s all about this looming test.”

Deutermann is founder of Long Island Opt-Out, a group of parents and teachers opposed to the Common Core tests and the way test scores are being used to evaluate teachers. The group encourages parents to refuse to let their children be tested.

“If enough people refuse to have their children take tests, than the test is invalid,” says Beth Dimino, co-founder of a group that is trying to stop Common Core altogether in New York.

Dimino thinks Common Core has become a way for corporations to make money, and points to the multi-million dollar contract the state of New York has with testing company Pearson to develop the state’s Common Core tests for grades three through eight (Pearson also has a contract with PARCC, one of two multi-state consortia developing Common Core tests).

Thousands of parents in New York are refusing to let their children take the Common Core tests. (Photo: Ben Shapiro)

Thousands of parents in New York are refusing to let their children take the Common Core tests. (Photo: Ben Shapiro)

Dimino not only wants the Common Core to go away, she’s also calling for the resignation of the state’s education commissioner, John King. Dimino says King is not listening to parents’ and teachers’ concerns about Common Core.

Common Core has become a hot political topic all over New York, fueling debate in local elections and in the governor’s race. Republican Rob Astorino, who is challenging incumbent Democrat Andrew Cuomo, has taken to using the phrase “Cuomo’s Common Core.” On his campaign web site, Astorino says Common Core has been a “disaster for parents, teachers and children alike.” If elected, he’s promising to get rid of Common Core in New York.

Politicians and education officials are responding to the pressure from parents and teachers. In January, 2014, the New York State teacher’s union, once a staunch supporter of the Common Core, withdrew its support for the standards “as implemented and interpreted” by the New York Education Department. In April, Gov. Andrew Cuomo and state legislators passed a law limiting test prep to no more than 2 percent of instructional time a year. And the governor and state lawmakers also agreed to a deal that would prevent teachers who score poorly on the new test-based teacher evaluation from being fired until at least 2016.

How you get there

Carol Burris, a high school principal in New York, does not want to see the Common Core standards go away, but she does think it’s time for a big public debate about the role of standardized testing in American education.

“I certainly don’t object to the goal,” she says about Common Core. “The goal is a good one. It’s how you get there.”

Burris would like to see students at all schools in the United States get the kind of education that’s laid out in the Common Core standards. But she doesn’t think that will happen as long as there are high-stakes tests attached. There is just too much riding on the test scores, she says, and no way for schools to avoid the test prep trap.

Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School on Long Island.  She thinks it’s time for a big debate about the role of standardized testing in American public education. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Carol Burris, principal of South Side High School on Long Island. She thinks it’s time for a big debate about the role of standardized testing in American public education. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

But what about the idea that the Common Core would be different because the tests wouldn’t require test prep? The idea that teaching the Common Core standards would be enough to get students ready?

For that to be the case, the tests have to match up really well with the standards, and Carol Burris doesn’t New York’s Common Core tests do.

She’s looked at the test questions the state has released, and in her opinion, the new tests aren’t that different from the old ones, just harder. In other words, the kind of question or reading passage that used to be on a 5th grade test might now show up on a 4th grade test or maybe a 3rd grade one. She believes the tests are full of complicated instructions that are more likely to confuse kids than assess their problem-solving or critical thinking skills. She highlighted examples in a recent blog post and described the test questions as “better suited to assess one’s ability to put together a chair from Ikea” than to assess reading comprehension.

Another principal, Elizabeth Phillips, wrote an Op-Ed in the New York Times about the problems with the tests. The tests were “confusing, developmentally inappropriate and not well aligned with the Common Core standards,” Phillips wrote. Children were being “asked to answer questions that had little bearing on their reading ability and yet had huge stakes for students, teachers, principals and schools.”

There has been no independent analysis of New York’s Common Core tests, and the New York State Department of Education refused to respond on the record to American RadioWorks’s questions about the tests. (You can look at test questions the state has released here.)

Students at South Side High School in an advanced English class. All students at South Side take advanced English, but principal Carol Burris fears more students in New York will be put in lower-quality remedial classes because of poor test scores on the new Common Core tests. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Students at South Side High School in an advanced English class. All students at South Side take advanced English, but principal Carol Burris fears more students in New York will be put in lower-quality remedial classes because of poor test scores on the new Common Core tests. (Photo: Emily Hanford)

Supporters of Common Core testing contend the new PARCC and SBAC tests, coming in the spring of 2015, will do a good job measuring the Common Core standards. They believe an American education system that is organized around preparing students for those tests is an education system that will prepare students for the future.

But principal Carol Burris doesn’t think all the testing is necessary. “No other nation that has really achieved good [results] has done reform this way,” she says. “It’s not driven by tests.”

Burris is right. In countries whose education systems rank highest on international comparisons, students take far fewer standardized tests than American kids do. And test scores are not typically used to evaluate teachers. (There is a growing body of evidence that shows using student test scores to evaluate teachers is unreliable. You can read recent research on the topic here, here and here.)

Burris points out that the authors of the Common Core borrowed heavily from top-performing countries like Finland and Canada when writing the standards. She thinks policymakers should borrow a page from them, too, and stop using tests to try to drive education reform.

Episode: Greater Expectations