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Will a Year's Delay Save the Common Core? A Response to Weingarten's Proposal

A week ago, Randi Weingarten gave a speech expressing some strong views on the Common Core. Her plea is that leaders across the country give schools a one year reprieve before the harsh consequences attached to new assessments linked to the Common Core begin to take effect.

She also shared the results of a poll that shows that most teachers WANT the standards to succeed. Most of us are invested in challenging our students, and like the idea of re-thinking our curriculum with colleagues. The Common Core has, in some places, given teachers rare time to do this vital work.

However, I do not share her optimism that this additional time will do more than forestall the disaster these tests will be for our schools.

The big selling point for these tests from the start has been that they will be fundamentally different from every standardized test ever created. They will take us "beyond the bubble test," as Secretary of Education Arne Duncan promised back in 2010.

But we are seeing the new tests and this "beyond" is not such a pretty place. The "Next Generation" MAP assessments sparked a boycott by students and teachers in the Seattle schools. An early trial of tests aligned with the Common Core in Kentucky yielded a 30% drop in the number of students considered proficient. The tests in New York state have award-winning principal Carol Burris warning parents, "don't buy the bunk!" These tests are arriving after even more stakes have been attached to their results. More schools will be closed, more students labeled as deficient, and more teachers' careers ended by these inaccurate and unreliable rating systems.

I have a fundamental problem with the nature of a national top-down accountability system enforced by even more frequent and intrusive tests. Those promoting them are using the language of effective formative assessment to sell something that actually strips classroom teachers of the central role that this work demands.

About twelve years ago, after I completed my National Board certification, I got involved with something called the CAPITAL project at Stanford, which was led by professor J. Myron (Mike) Atkin, who is now emeritus. The goal of this project was to understand how science teachers might come to shift our assessment practices. Dr. Atkin's basic premise was that our assessment practices flow from deeply held beliefs -- from our philosophies about how students learn, and how as teachers we should respond to and guide their learning. Often times we hold these believes so deeply, they are sort of normalized within us, and not explicitly expressed -- they have become part of how we see the world.

Atkin had been working with Dylan Wiliam and Paul Black, and was very excited about the ideas in their work "Inside the black box: Raising standards through classroom assessment." This work suggested a very different approach to assessment, one that de-emphasized grading, and encouraged lots of peer and teacher feedback, modeling, revision, and so forth. In this model, assessment and learning are intertwined, and the purpose is not to assign a final judgment on the quality of the work, but rather to guide the student towards work of higher quality. Black and Wiliam showed that when this approach is taken, students engage much more with their teacher, and this formative assessment yields more learning.

Atkin had been around long enough to understand what usually happens when revolutionary ideas like this arrive. There is a big hoopla, lots of excited discussions, and after the dust settles commercial publishers start introducing formative assessments into all their curricular materials. Some of the underlying issues are raised, but classroom teachers are not the ones actively engaged in reflecting on their assumptions and beliefs about their assessment practices. Those debates happen elsewhere, and teachers are given the curriculum and prepackaged assessments that the publishers have produced.

This is problematic for several reasons. First of all, if assessment practices flow from deeply held beliefs, tossing some formative assessments into a teacher's guide is not enough to generate the reflection and discussion needed for teachers to change the way they approach assessment. Teachers have always used "quizzes," and a formative assessment can easily be thought of in a similar frame. The idea that we use this sort of thing as a means to gauge where students are, and offer feedback, may be lost. Second, there is a way that the entire process is hijacked when the teacher loses agency, when the publisher plays the central role in creating the assessments and determining when they should be given, and this gets us closer to my biggest problem with the Common Core.

Here is what Dr. Atkin shared with me in an interview I published several years ago on my blog:

They [Black and Wiliam] also have been very clear about exactly what formative assessment is: working with a student, or a group of students, to develop a course of action that helps bridge the gap between current student knowledge and the desired educational goal. Providing feedback that is usable, detailed, and often individualized is at the heart of this kind of assessment. Formative assessment, so defined, is a pivotal element of everyday classroom teaching. It occurs throughout the school day. It requires collaborative involvement of both teacher and student. And it isn't something purchased from a vendor that can be used in an identical fashion anywhere, like an instruction book or a cooking recipe.
Regrettably, the testing companies have hijacked the formative label and are marketing it toward ends that are the polar opposite of what the research highlights as so powerful in student learning. Much of what the companies are marketing as formative assessment consists of prescribed mini-tests inserted at specified points in the curriculum for the purpose of giving students practice for the standardized examinations at the end of the year. In much too facile a fashion, it separates assessment from teaching and learning instead of integrating all three.
One-size-fits-all, large-scale, end-of-year summative testing has already weakened education by reducing the curriculum to outcomes that can be assessed by relatively inexpensive tests using multiple-choice and other short-answer questions. We are now seeing a solidification of that influence as testing companies aggressively promote infusion of the entire curriculum with scores of mini-tests -- under the guise of promoting formative assessment. Preparing for the big tests by having the students take many little ones of the same kind may be one way to teach, but it isn't formative assessment.
The key benefits of formative assessment emphasized in the research literature are associated with changes in the classroom that result when teachers and students collaborate closely in examining the quality of student work. What does quality look like? What might the student do to improve school work to bring it to a higher quality than it is right now? This integration of teaching, learning, and assessment is complex work, but potent. It takes time and effort: hours, days, weeks, and months - not the periodic 15 or 20 minutes needed to respond to questions purchased from a remote "item bank" developed by the testing companies to foreshadow the final examination. Reporting mini-test scores to the students and even discussing common incorrect answers has little relationship to the type of feedback studied by Black and Wiliam that produced such large gains in achievement.
Standardized testing has a place in a comprehensive system of assessment, but not if it saturates the curriculum in ways that weaken teaching and learning, and not if it is directed primarily toward preparation for tests that are known to have serious limitations of scope and depth. The saddest element for students, teachers, parents, and the general public is that we know better.

The work that Randi Weingarten calls for, of teachers grappling with standards, figuring out what they mean, what quality work looks like, and how to get students to understand this -- that is central to our work as teachers. A relatively small percentage of teachers have been actively involved in this generative process related to the Common Core. The majority of teachers will be handed a standards aligned curriculum, be expected to teach it, and be given publisher generated "formative assessments," which are now in many cases high stakes for teachers, because they have morphed into "benchmark assessments," used for evaluative purposes. And then there will be end of the year tests, which again will be very high stakes.

The vision I see in Black and Wiliam's work, and from my work with Dr. Atkin, is that classroom teachers ought to become themselves expert at this process of formative assessment. They need to internalize the standards that they are working with. They need to understand what quality work looks like, and figure out creative ways to communicate that with students. This is not a process that can be prepackaged. Once you prepackage it, you have removed agency and autonomy from the teacher.

We know from Daniel Pink's work that the three drivers of human motivation are autonomy, mastery and purpose. Teachers and students are internally motivated to get better. Teachers are also motivated by their sense of autonomy -- their ability to determine for themselves the focus of instruction, the ways that the standards will be explored, and the means by which students will develop their abilities. Therefore we do not NEED all these high stakes -- threats, penalties, evaluations based on test scores, etc. Not only do we not need them, but they actively destroy motivation. Thus the imposition of standards aligned benchmark tests in the guise of "formative assessment" is an act that destroys the motivation of teachers and students both, and is fundamentally contradicted by what we know about assessment and motivation.

I think some teachers -- perhaps the 25% of AFT members who say they feel prepared to implement the Common Core, have engaged in the initial process that teachers must engage in to make sense of standards. That can be a positive experience -- the wrestling with what we teach and why we teach it, and be challenged to re-think, and make our work more challenging and meaningful for students. If that was how the process was going to continue, I would feel very different about the Common Core. I might still take issue with the actual standards, the way they approach the "close reading" of text, the way they are tied to a tight ladder of skills tied to preparation for college, and so forth. These are the debates we SHOULD be having, widely. Instead, these standards were crafted by a small circle of people, in secret, with little involvement by classroom teachers. This is an enormous shift, and it ought to be the result of a much wider democratic process, not something that an elite group convened largely in secret hashes out behind closed doors. In fact, this would best be done in the most democratic fashion possible, at the level of our local communities.

That brings me to the heart of my concern about the Common Core. Randi Weingarten is suggesting we delay the stakes so that teachers have an extra year of to prepare. But I do not believe even an additional year of preparation will be sufficient to remedy the fundamental issues I have raised.

I just read an elegant essay by educator Bill Boyle, which identifies the core problem with the "raise the bar" approach to creating more equity:

Here is the key portion:

* The logic of corporate education reform says that student achievement is most important (and note that this achievement is invariably measured through the superficial ease of test score results)

* The logic of reform says by increasing student achievement, we benefit students

* However, those most likely to achieve are those least in need of a caring school environment (though all students benefit from an environment that places care at its center)

* Those most likely to be hurt by the ethic of achievement are those we all agree are most in need of support, and those who, ostensibly, this reform is designed to benefit

* Thus the logic of the current school reform movement is that it benefits those least in need of that benefit, and hurts most those that it is designed to help

Isn't it ironic? It would be hilariously so if so many students and educators weren't traumatized by it.

And this is what I fear the most. We have this entire project based on the premise that raising the bar will bring up those on the bottom, and make them better able to compete. In fact, when you raise that bar, you create huge obstacles for those at the bottom, and in effect, rationalize and reinforce their own sense of worthlessness, and society's judgment that they are subpar. You further stigmatize these students, their teachers and their schools, based on their performance in this rigged race.

The tests aligned to the Common Core are already yielding proficiency drops of 30% or more. These tests are supposedly the best ever made, closely aligned to what has been determined to be of value to our society. And the results will show that even more of our schools are "dropout factories." Even more of our students are incapable of intelligent thought. And of course these indictments will continue to be highly class and race based. Our English learners, and the schools they attend, and the teachers who teach them, will be stigmatized. African Americans and those in poverty will find their schools condemned as failures, subject to closure, as we are seeing in Chicago, DC and Philadelphia.

In effect, the Common Core tests will refresh NCLB's indictment of public schools and teachers, with supposedly scientific precision.

Teachers - and union leaders -- may feel as if they should get on board, to try to steer this process. However, I think this is a ship of doom for our schools. I think its effect will be twofold. It will create a smoother, wider, more easily standardized market for curriculum and technology. This will, in turn, promote the standardization of curriculum and instruction, and further de-professionalize teaching. The assessments will reinforce this, by tying teachers closer to more frequent timelines and benchmark assessments, which will be, in many places, tied to teacher evaluations. And the widespread failures of public schools will be used to further "disrupt the public school monopoly," spurring further expansion of vouchers and charters and private schools.

I wish I could share Randi Weingarten's qualified optimism. But I think those of us who care about both our union and our status as professionals need to learn from our experience with NCLB. The unions jumped on board that disaster as well, with high hopes that our schools would get additional resources, and we could use those to demonstrate our capacity to improve. We know how that has worked out. I think our union leaders and many in our profession are making a similar mistake with Common Core. We are not steering this ship. The people who are steering it are terribly wrong about how it will affect the teaching profession, our schools, and our most vulnerable students.

We must move beyond not only the bubble tests, but beyond the era of punitive high stakes tests. Only then will we be able to use standards in the way they ought to be used - as focal points for our creative work as educators. I would be glad to have a year's delay for the consequences of these tests, but I think we need to actively oppose the entire high stakes testing paradigm. The Common Core standards should not be supported as long as they are embedded in this system.

What do you think? Should we join Randi Weingarten in pushing for one year's delay in the harsh consequences attached to Common Core assessments? Will this year put the project on sound footing?

Continue the dialogue with @anthonycody on Twitter.

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