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Can We Rescue the Common Core Standards From the Testing Machine?

Guest post by Peter Greene.

A recent recurring refrain around and about the comments sections is the notion that the Common Core standards are, in and of themselves, quite fine, and if we could just uncouple them from the testing and implementation regimens, all will be well. The standards themselves are an improvement so let's build on that opportunity, and not stand in the way of fine new standards just because their ugly testing step-cousin is trying to sneak through the door with them.

The Common Core standards could really work - we just need to get rid of the high stakes tests...

 I can remember thinking like that. I can remember looking at the standards and thinking, "Many of these are actually fine." (I should note that I teach at the high school level, not elementary.) In fact, one of my earliest complaints about the CCSS was that they were one more example of folks telling us to do things that we already did. And I don't think there's a teacher alive who wouldn't relish the promise of freedom to pursue the standards in any way they deemed best.

"You know," I thought at one point. "If it were possible to just use these standards as a rough guide to follow as a thought best, and we got the government to stop testing, I could live with this."

 And that was the moment when I knew that, no, the Common Core standards were not pure of heart and I would never learn to love them.

Because what would decoupling look like, after all? What incantation would exorcise the testing demons? Would teachers go to government and say, "Thank you for these guidelines. Trust us-- we will use our best professional judgment and produce the best-educated generation of students ever. Just step back and watch us work." No, that would never work, and it would never work because the CCSS are not for us. They never were.

People who like the standards are looking at them as a guide, as that helpful assurance that teachers sometimes like that we are on the right page. We like standards. We like standards like drivers like white lines. And we think of standards as a map, a tool to help us find our way. To us standards say, "Here's a map. We trust you to find your way."

Not the Common Core. The primary purpose of the CCSS is to call teachers out. It says, "Here's what you are supposed to be doing, or else. And we'll be checking up on you every step of the way." It is not a tool to be used by teachers; it's a tool to be used on them.

The Common Core standards say, "Here's what you must prove you're accomplishing." If you tell your students that you expect them to study and learn the chapter about Torquemada and 15th Century Spain, they know there's a test coming. Everyone expects the Spanish Inquisition. The CCSS are not about helping us teach; they are about holding us accountable, so they are meaningless without testing (and some parts are meaningless with it).

Since they were designed to hold teachers accountable, they were designed to be tested. Let's look at the reading literature strand for 11-12 grade. RL.11-12.1, 2 and 3 deal with key ideas and detail, and all three standards have one thing in common--they focus always and only on the text. RL.11-12.3 tells us to analyze the impact of the author's choices, but not the intent or context of them. So a CCSS-style study of The Sun Also Rises would not include the impact of the Great War on Hemingway's generation, Hemingway's own background, the rise of post-modernism, or the emerging literary techniques of the period. Nor would we look at how prevalent themes of the generation find expression in the novel.

We would study The Awakening without applying an understanding of women's roles in the fin de siècle American South. We would study the impact of sarcasm on "A Modest Proposal" without studying what prompted Swift to write it. We would study The Bell Jar without ever considering the life of Sylvia Plath. And Animal Farm would be a curious fairy tale about talking animals.

Why would we strip all this literature of its richness, depth and complexity, the very human qualities that make it worth reading in the first place? Because measuring students' grasp of such ideas would be hard. Because the standardized test would not be standardized, because we could not control for the depth and breadth of background information that individual students brought to the table. Because the only serious answers to the only important questions would have to be in the form of essays instead of bubbles. And real essays (not the standardized faux essays) are not cost-effective to score.

 We cannot ask a student to explain how he understands Hemmingway's novel as an expression of a generation's confusion and alienation after World War I. But we can ask him to read a paragraph from the novel and pick the most important sentence in it.

 These are not standards designed to foster a richer and deeper understanding of literature. They are designed to produce easily testable results.

 You may reply, "Well, you can teach all that other nifty stuff if you want. Go ahead and enrich your lessons above and beyond the CCSS."

 Well, if I am enriching above and beyond the CCSS, what do I need the CCSS for? If the CCSS is not laying out a path for a full quality education, what path is it marking?

It's laying out the path for the test. The Common Core standards are just the largest-scale test-prep guide ever created. The CCSS tell us what we need to cover for the test, and the test tells us how well we covered it. If there were no test, the CCSS would not matter.

The CCSS are also, of course, about making money. NCLB also wanted to bust into the big piggy bank that is public school funding, but NCLB was a big blunt hammer; CCSS is a more sophisticated machine, with many interlocking parts.

But the biggest-- the hugest, in my opinion-- reason that Common Core standards cannot be rescued is reflected in the difficulty all of us who write about education these days, and it is probably the biggest lesson that the powers that be learned from NCLB.

The biggest mistake in NCLB is that they gave the whole thing a name. The testing, the state standards, the punishing evaluations, the funding pressures-- everything was gathered under the No Child Left Behind banner. Oh, how we loathed it. We called it funny mocking names. But even when we couldn't see the full picture, we knew its name. We knew its name.

This thing that's happening now? The contempt for teachers, the drive to privatize, the evaluation-based punishment, the dismantling of our profession, the destruction of public education, the redirection of billions of tax dollars, the secrecy, the ill-conceived standards-- we can see all its pieces, but the great chewing mechanism does not have a name.  The lack of shorthand title for the great galumphing monstrosity allows its creators, our leaders, to pretend that all these are separate elements, when in fact, they are all one well-coordinated machine.

If these are all separate and discrete pieces, they cannot be  parts of a giant machine chewing apart the entire American institution of schooling. And this leads to the belief that some of these separate pieces can be rescued -- that we can accept some and leave the rest behind. 

The Common Core standards are part of a coordinated interlocking machine, and its creators will never let you take only a piece of it home. The testing regimen is not its own separate thing that can be just thrown out any more than it was its own thing when it was the engine of NCLB. If you want only one cog, you can't extract it from the machine.

What do you think? Was the Common Core written as a map for test-makers and a tool for those seeking to hold teachers accountable? Does this make it impossible to rescue from these purposes?

Peter Greene has taught English for more than thirty years in Northwestern Pennsylvania. He also writes a weekly newspaper column, and plays in a 157 year old town band. His blog is Curmudgucation. 

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