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Common Core: What's It All For?

Last week, third through eighth graders across the Empire State nervously sat down to take their New York State Education Department (NYSED) Language Arts exams; this week, they'll be following up with the test for math. I teach high school, so my students have almost a month and a half reprieve before they face judgment in the form of Regents exams--eight days of tests in all different subjects. Still, I feel sympathetic for the little guys and their teachers, and for their parents (several of whom are my colleagues) who are being awakened in the dead of night when their middle-schoolers are unable to sleep due to nervousness. This unease has perhaps never been expressed so poetically as by this poor kid at M.S. 223, who became so upset by the length and difficulty of his exam that he unceremoniously threw up all over it.

If you've read this blog before, you know I've never been a big advocate of standardized testing as a measure of teacher efficacy, student achievement, or really, of anything useful at all. Now, this becomes ever more the case as tests become aligned with Common Core State Standards, which--unfortunately--neither teachers nor students are well equipped to meet.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative (CCSS), for the uninitiated, were introduced in 2009 as a component of Obama's Race to the Top contest; they present extensive list of learning goals and skills that students are to have mastered by each grade level, and that teachers must target in their instruction. All but a few states adopted them (in part, to receive special grants), and instruction must now be tailored to these standards.

Now, having rigorous standards is great. I have no problem with this. However, teachers received minimal instruction about how to better implement these standards in their lessons; most were sent to a workshop for a few days, and then expected to immediately change years of instruction in order to fit with the newly designed (and often extremely dense) tables and charts that make up the CCSS. These same teachers were also expected (after a grand total of five days of CCSS instruction) to "roll out" the standards to the other teachers at their respective schools. I know, because I was one of these teachers. Had this been a minor change in protocol, I could have seen the wisdom of this; however, for a complete instructional overhaul, such minimal training did not seem sufficient. Subsequent training workshops were neither uniform nor consistent, nor did enough teachers receive the training to begin with. Despite hints that this would be done, to my knowledge no common database of CCSS-aligned instructional materials has ever been made available. And, perhaps most problematically, no one ever sent the students a memo about these changes.

Here's an example: One of the standards for reading (as opposed to writing or math) at the 9th and 10th grade level is this gem: CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RL.9-10.9 Analyze how an author draws on and transforms source material in a specific work (e.g., how Shakespeare treats a theme or topic from Ovid or the Bible or how a later author draws on a play by Shakespeare). Now, I think this is a lofty goal for 10th grade, but a worthy one, and while we were reading Larry Watson's Montana 1948 a couple of months ago, we did in fact have a lengthy discussion of how the biblical story of Cain and Abel is rehashed in Watson's novella. However, that was the Honors class, not my standard or Special Education classes. And it was not an idea that occurred to them without my prompting ("Does this remind anyone of any Old Testament stories they might have heard? Say, involving rival brothers?"), and ultimately retelling the Biblical story for those who simply did not know it. Once I did these things, it proved to be a terrific discussion. But it had to be so heavily "scaffolded" (in edu-speak) that I could not honestly say, yes, students were able to meet this standard. We approached it, certainly, but that is not a skill-set they possessed without my help. They did not have the background knowledge or the analytical skills to make that leap on their own.

And therein lies the problem with the standards. They are good goals, and to view them that way is fine. But to presume that all students come into the class being able to perform these tasks is naïve. The vast majority of our students do not, and we have to work with them at their respective levels--often several grades behind where CCSS would place them--in the hopes of moving them a bit. (The reasons for their being behind relate to so many circumstances, most outside of the classroom, that I can't even begin talking about here.) The kids cannot leap over years' worth of skills they do not possess, and simply saying "They WILL have this skill by 3rd, or 5th, or 10th grade" does not make it so. You can talk endlessly about fitting a square peg into a round hole, but it still isn't going to--and it takes a while to trim it to the correct shape and size.

So, I'm sure Albany will continue testing kids using CCSS-aligned exams, and the poor kids will continue throwing up all over them. And I can't really see any way around this, because CCSS is a system that--in its current incarnation--does not have the right supports in place, for teachers or for students, to promote the desired outcomes.

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