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The Common Core Is Not the Problem

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Many have lamented the affect of the standardized assessments, especially for those students who are behind, learn differently, and those who have distractions and limitations that keep them from achieving as well as their age and grade peers. Special education teacher, Brian Zorn called for measuring progress - heralded as the measure most educators would welcome. In his Wall Street Journal opinion piece, Mr. Zorn wrote: 

On average, my class of nine students is reading more than 2 1/2 years below grade level. Some have average intelligence, but they struggle to learn in the ways others do...One of my fifth-grade students spent his early school years frustrated and angry that he couldn't read like everyone else. He felt defeated and disliked school. Yet with great patience and encouragement from his teachers, he can now read more than 200 words by sight and has begun to "crack the code," applying phonemic awareness to unknown words to sound them out. His self-esteem has increased markedly and he has, for the first time, begun to enjoy reading...Then came the statewide exams, and six horrific days in my classroom.

It isn't the standards he is calling out.  It is the assessment of those standards.  This is the same call all those opposed to the current measures have argued.  Standards are good things.  Standards that are high are even better.  Ceilings need not be low.  But the assessments have made the ceiling the goal and students' growth toward the goal is not what is celebrated. The measure is whether the student met the mark. Especially for those students who are not meeting those marks, the assessments and their use are deleterious. 

Are these assessments of the students or the teachers? An assessment of a student's achievement or progress is dependent upon what and whom? It is dependent upon the state of the child's frame of mind, life, effort, capacities, and limitations.  It is dependent upon the state of the teacher's frame of mind, life effort, capacities, and limitations.  If a child achieves a less than expected most offer more support and extra help.  But what is the teacher offered?  In these days of diminishing resources, changing curricula, and a call to change schools overall, this is a troubling question. The new standards continue to be examined and responded to with particular concern about the students who are or have fallen behind.   

An example of a Kindergarten standard from the Common Core:

Work with numbers 11-19 to gain foundations for place value.
Compose and decompose numbers from 11 to 19 into ten ones and some further ones, e.g., by using objects or drawings, and record each composition or decomposition by a drawing or equation (such as 18 = 10 + 8); understand that these numbers are composed of ten ones and one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, or nine ones.

Some may argue this is a fair standard. When we are talking about all students, however, this can seem out of reach for some. If we hold it as a standard, a reach, a target for all, the results will look like a huge scatter gram. And as students move on to the next grade and set of standards what makes the best sense to measure?  Progress of course.  A return to Mr. Zorn's thinking:

A much better approach--and one that gives teachers results that can be used to measure yearly growth and mastery, as well as determine future instruction--would be a test like the Northwest Evaluation Association's Measures of Academic Progress (MAP).

Exactly. No matter to whom the test results will be attributed, progress toward the standard is key. The concepts and the information to be mastered have been chosen by the standard. Meeting it is a shared responsibility between the teacher and the student. Supplying the resources and environment in which this can take place is the responsibility of the leaders and of policy makers.

We don't deny the necessity of accountability and the need for targeted support for teachers to address the needs of their students by learning how to fill their own gaps in teaching and learning. In schools, the continuously developing skills and knowledge of  is the goal.  Teachers need to be learning about the standards and content, the assessments, their students. At the nexus of these, teachers do their work. Standards are important and national standards in a country like ours, particularly with our overwhelming capacity for mobility and a shrinking world, is a good thing.  So when you come right down to it, it is the assessments and how they are used that is the heart of the issue. 

How can policy makers, who bear an ultimate responsibly for education, legislate that children learn? They provide resources, however well or not, and now what needs to be taught. But, at that point of interaction of child and teacher, how can every child learn and grow, how much growth can be expected and how much is enough? It is the dilemma and frustration at this interactive point that presents the currently unanswerable question. These are the questions that need to be resolved, for everyone's good.

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