Will “Common Core” Max its Own Test?

by Martin Harris

It’s taken nearly a half-century after a then-well-functioning American public education system went off in a range of new curriculum directions in the (not-so) Soaring Sixties –think “look-say” reading displacing phonics, the “New Math” displacing the old, and the near-banishment of grammar, sentence structure, and penmanship from the English classroom– “ but eventually, the parent-taxpayer demand for a return to a sound basic curriculum has found political voice in an otherwise-unpleasant concept: a single national curriculum, exactly what 50’s and even 60’s era education theorists then derided as “the German solution”. But Common Core, as it was labeled, gained support anyway, maybe out of sheer desperation when Federal testing and Proficiency scoring, initiated in 1969, began to alert the public to the productivity collapse in a system wherein only a third or so of students were learning enough to function at grade level (the short-hand definition for “Proficiency”) under all the supposedly new-and-superior curriculum and school-management experiments. Presently, some 45 States have adopted Common Core, along with its achievement-testing template which, under some fairly flexible rules, requires some mix of the local in-State tests, like NECAP in Vermont and TCAP in Tennessee, along with a CC test labeled “Smarter Balance” and another CC test called PARCC, or Preparation for Readiness in College and Careers. And some backlash is already evident: in Maine, for example, groups like “Common Core Maine” want the State to return to its K-12 roots, a local curriculum such as all States once each traditionally deployed; and. somehow, in those bad-old-days, just about all students eventually achieved all the literacy and numeracy essentials in the national language and counting systems. Interestingly, Common Core resistance is coming from both sides of the political aisle.

The conservative side bases its arguments mostly on local control and a return-to-basics concept, quite similar to “the new classical curriculum” principle (no nation-wide template) many non-public schools now use to attract parental support; and the liberal side seems less concerned about the syllabi for the usual subject areas –Reading, Math, science, history, and so on– but more concerned about the first CC test score results now coming in: so far, results from New York and the District of Columbia have been publicized, and they’re just as dismal –Reading and Math Proficiency levels in the 1/3-of-students range– as those which originally prompted States like VT and TN (and 47 others) to adopt and use easier tests like NECAP and TCAP to divert public attention from the Federal National Assessment of Educational Progress results, which began to get wider publicity for the first time in the early 90’s with the adoption of No Child Left Behind. In New York, for example, the average for Grades 3-8 in Math in 2013 was 29.6% Proficiency within New York City, marginally better (surprised?) than overall New York State scores, as the averages for the four major demographic groups –Asian, Black, Hispanic, White– graphed on page 11 of the report, show. These dismal scores are remarkably similar to what the annual NAEP scores, published annually in the National Digest of Educational Statistics, have shown since the 70’s, and it’s logical that edu-crats embarrassed by the scores then would be similarly embarrassed now, and similarly seeking a new way out. In Maine, one politically-doable exit seems to be the rejection of Common Core itself.

In Vermont, a different line of defense seems to be emerging. No Common Core test scores in, yet; but Federal NAEP scores have always been (just as for NYS and C) far below NECAP scores, so similar anxiety would be logical. The Vermont solution seems to show up in a recent (Addison Independent, 30 Sept) Middlebury news report, headlined “Four ANwSU Schools to Test New Assessment System” (that would be “Smarter Balance” within Common Core) and reporting in the text that most Addison County K-12 schools will be administering the SB tests, but “…the field tests won’t generate any [publicized] student test scores, said Michael Hock, State Director of Educational Assessment,” the news story describing a sort of we’re-just-testing-the-test talking-point for public information purposes. A skeptic would suspect that such governmental secrecy usually has a governmental-protection function, particularly after the first (and only, so far) CC results published, from NY and DC, have caused such educator angst.

One could and should commend Common Core, and its testing component, Smarter Balance, for confirming (like the medical “second opinion”) exactly what the Federal NAEP achievement-test scores have been telling us since the 70’s: that, thanks to the 60’s-era changes in curriculum content and classroom management, the previous standard of almost-all-students-making-Proficient has been degraded to, now, only about a third doing so. One could suppose (it hasn’t happened yet) that a return to traditional content and, of course, traditional in-school management, would, if given time, produce the once-standard near-100% Proficiency scores once again; but it seems to have produced, instead, a desire to mask the scores by (Maine) abandoning Common Core or (Vermont) keeping scores secret. Any sort of educator-determination to keep Common Core and Smarter Balance and (most importantly) get Proficiencies back up seems not to be “a politically viable option”.

The politics of public education are such that both Maine and Vermont may well succeed. Abandoning Common Core (and its inconvenient Smarter Balance test) would enable the Pine Tree State, like the Green Mountain State, to place major publicity-purposes emphasis on the easier NECAP tests both already use, precisely to avoid publicizing dismal Federal scores, just as they have been doing. But, of course, “testing-the-test” can’t be more than a temporary excuse for Smarter Balance achievement-score secrecy. What then for Vermont’s schools?