Finding Standards for Education

Two years ago I was writing about how educational assessment was moving more and more online as one way to standardize how students are assessed.

Last fall, I noticed that an ASCD poll on the "Most Attention-Getting Topics for the Year in K-12 Education" had at the top of its list the Common Core Standards and their orientation, implementation and assessment, which received 77% of the votes from participants.

Although I spend my time these days in higher education, I taught English in public secondary schools for 25 years too. My current work with the NCTE has had me paying increasing attention to the Common Core State Standards.

In general, I would say that I like standards. Even in education, I think most people would agree that there should be some kind of standards for what a student learns in any American school system. And there are standards that have evolved without any governmental agencies participating.

Consider mathematics - it would be difficult to find any American elementary school that did not teach addition, subtraction, multiplication, division, fractions and decimals. Perhaps not all schools would agree about when each part should be taught or the best method for teaching each concept. That's unfortunate because they will have a real impact on the kind of students we see in the years to come.

The Common Core Standards are an effort to provide a consistent, clear understanding of what students are expected to learn, so teachers and parents know what they need to do to help them.

The standards were designed to be robust and relevant to the real world and hopefully reflect the knowledge and skills that young people need for success in college and careers. Since this is a national effort, there is much talk about American students being prepared for the future and being able to "compete successfully in the global economy."

The Common Core standards were designed in 2009 and adopted in the next two years by 45 states and the District of Columbia. The Standards have support from the Obama administration but Governors Fallin (R - Oklahoma) and Haley (R - South Carolina) recently signed laws ending adoption of the reforms in their states and Indiana’s Board of Education formally abandoned the benchmarks in late April.

If all this Common Core sounds more political than educational, then you are thinking along the same lines as many educators. Much of the Common Core conversations that get media coverage come from meetings like that of the National Association of System Heads, the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, and the American Association of State Colleges and Universities - places where discussion on the Higher Ed for Higher Standards was also conceived.

Common Core opponents point out that the new coalition is a project of the Collaborative for Student Success, which receives funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation which has been a promoter of the Common Core and is a big fan of big data.

It's hard to totally disagree with those intentions. But the Standards have been met with lots of resistance from teachers, schools and even from states. I think that is to be expected with any federal program that tries to set English and math standards and is pushed not only by the current administration in Washington, D.C. but also by education trade organizations and non-profits providing funding.

Some states have put on hold or even de-funded implementation of the standards. Some have pulled out of the consortia developing tests tied to them.

Federal programs like Race to the Top grants and No Child Left Behind waivers are often tied to the adoption of Common Core standards and assessments. But the Race to the Top money is now spent and so states are taking a different view at Common Core.

It is dangerous for anyone to make an overly-simple explanation of the standards in just a few sentences. For example, a lot of press early on was that Common Core requirements reduces the amount of classic literature, poetry and drama taught in English classes by 60 percent in favor of reading non-fiction and the "prose of work."  The Standards do place more emphasis on non-fiction, but there is a good argument that the balance of fiction to non-fiction was an imbalance on the fiction side. (This admission coming from a literature major and someone who taught more literature than non-fiction to students for 25 years.)

In the math area, it delays the progression to Algebra I (seen as the gateway course to all higher math) by two years.

Media coverage, like this NPR report, like to point out the extremes and inconsistencies.

The man-on-the-street can easily see that if a fourth-grader in Arkansas gets a “proficient” on his state test but would have been given a "failing" score on that test if he lived in Massachusetts, means something is wrong.

I am not enough of an expert to praise or condemn the Standards, and I no longer toil in the fields (a nicer image than "being in the trenches") of K-12 education on a daily basis. I do think that all educators, especially those who are at the colleges, need to become better informed.

And those assessments...

Assessment movements usually start in K-12 by state or federal mandates and sometimes trickle up to higher education later. In the past 2014-15 academic year, more than forty states implemented online testing programs. Thirty states already do their summative assessments online.

New assessments will require more than just changes in instruction. Unfunded requirements for  different tech devices and high-speed bandwidth are part of the needs list. Online assessments generally include not only the traditional multiple-choice questions, but also simulations, computer-based items, short answers, and more writing.

These new assessments are being created by two major consortia of states, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). They are based on (not part of) the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and will try to assess address higher-order thinking skills and problem solving.

The overall objective seems to be to cover all the standards, some of which are difficult to measure, especially online.

Why online? Online testing is appealing because you can obtain results quickly and get a lot of additional data. For example, which problems did students spend the most time pondering; which answers were changed; at what point did last minute guessing seem to occur.  Hopefully, teachers can use the rapid results to change instruction for classes or specific students.

I have mentioned before that I don't see very much interest in higher education for the Common Core State Standards system that is impacting K-12 education. I did come across an article from The Chronicle titled "College Leaders Sign On to Support Common Core Educational Standards" that discusses how 200+ higher-education leaders have created an organization to voice support for Common Core. Thirty states are represented by mostly administrators at public colleges and universities.

An earlier version of this article appeared at Serendipity35

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