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Common Core Under Attack

Is the bottom falling out of the Core? As we get closer to implementation, more states are shying away.

As you read this, at least five of the 45 states that signed on to adopt the new Common Core State Standards have opted not to offer the online assessments designed to measure student outcomes against the standards. Over the summer, a number of other states threw up their hands and said they can't afford the assessment price tag. And in two bellwether states—Indiana and Florida—­legislators are getting an earful from grassroots critics who see Common Core as a federal takeover of state education policy. Some have even dubbed it "Obamacore."

Why all the fuss now, two years after most states signed on to align with the national math and ELA standards? And how many more states can drop out before the "common" is lost from Common Core?

There's still a year to go before the standards and assessment officially roll out. Most participating states are already deep into unpacking the standards and training teachers. Common Core is being heralded as a sea change in American education, shifting the focus toward independent thinking, inquiry, and problem solving while sifting diverse state curricula into common alignment.

To close observers, it's no surprise that the debate over Common Core's mission is heating up, given the odd alliances that have formed.

Former U.S. assistant secretary of education (and anti-NCLB firebrand) Diane Ravitch complains that the standards are untested and are not sufficiently benchmarked. She has company in the liberal Brookings Institution, which worries that national standards won't fix persistent achievement gaps within states. Brookings has an ally in the libertarian Cato Institute.

Meanwhile, both national teachers unions support the standards, though they want more time before teachers are held accountable for results. Unions have an unlikely friend in the Fordham Foundation, which regularly sends policy fellows to testify before heated legislative hearings in support of the standards.

"I fully expected this fight and expect more to come next year," says Michael Kirst, professor emeritus of education and business management at Stanford University. "The early stages of Common Core were too good to be true. It spread with virtually no opposition. There's always going to be pushback against anything that fundamentally changes public education."

Sticker Shock
In the spring, one of the two consortia developing online assessments for Common Core announced the cost of its tests. A full suite of summative, formative, and interim tests designed by the Smarter Balanced consortium will cost states $27.30 per student. Over the summer, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) consortium announced its price: $29.50 per student. Money to develop the tests came from Race to the Top grants, with the goal of providing comparable achievement data across states.

"We were concerned about expense from day one," says Georgia state school superintendent John Barge. In July, Barge announced that Georgia would withdraw from PARCC and would not use its assessments. "All along we were hoping that we'd be able to give some input into other ways of implementing the testing," Barge says. "None of that seemed to pan out and the numbers were higher than projected. We were priced out of the ball game."

Georgia spends just over $27 million on annual kindergarten readiness, ELA, math, science, social studies, high school graduation, and advanced placement tests. Adding the Common Core assessments would have brought the annual cost to $56 million."That was something we just couldn't do," Barge says. Georgia is planning to work with other states that are not part of either consortium.

In addition to Georgia, Alabama, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, and Utah have also opted not to commit to using the tests designed by the consortia. (Texas, Virginia, Alaska, and Nebraska never adopted the standards.)

As other states—including Indiana, Florida, Michigan, and Wisconsin—debate whether to pull back on their commitment to Common Core and its related assessments, the question looms: Does it matter how many states participate?

"I don't think that not participating in either consortium diminishes the value of having common standards," says Barge. "There's tremendous value in knowing students are being taught to the same standards in English and math."

A more cynical, or perhaps pragmatic, view holds that a common test would keep states honest.

"It does matter," says Andrew Rotherham, a founder of Bellwether Education Partners. "There's a lot of mischief that goes on in assessments that allows states to paint various pictures of how they're doing."

More participating states, Rotherham adds, also means lower, amortized costs per state. Maybe more important, an authentic attempt at a common testing tool could galvanize national focus on student achievement.

Federal Involvement
Common Core was born out of the most recent education reform movement and is closely linked to the American Diploma Project. In 2009, with financial support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others, the National Governors Association commissioned the ­creation of a national math and literacy curriculum. They came up with the Common Core State Standards, a shorter list of standards that emphasize deeper instruction of key ­concepts.

Some critics argue that adoption was too heavily incentivized from the beginning, when the Obama administration required that states embrace the standards in order to be eligible for Race to the Top grants.

"A few of our [state board of education] members said they felt the process was hijacked," says Mark Peterson, spokesman for the Utah State Office of Education. "But our state didn't receive Race to the Top funds. We're trying to raise the bar, particularly in mathematics, and do it in as technological and economical a delivery service as we can, given our funding status."

In Utah, citizen groups have protested a perceived over-reach by Common Core to intrude into their state's educational functions, contending that states have no leverage to modify the standards. Some link the Common Core standards to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, which conducts national assessments and develops the "nation's report card."

"Their concerns tend to envelop issues that have nothing to do with the standards, including student data privacy concern," explains Peterson. "And it spins out from there, to questions about what the federal government is doing with that data."

Utah opted out of its commitment to using the Smarter Balanced assessments when the state legislature voted to develop its own tests. Utah hired American Institutes for Research to develop test questions, which will be reviewed by a committee that includes 15 parents.

Utah has already modified Common Core's ELA standards (to include print and cursive handwriting). "We have continually pointed out to critics that we are free to change or eliminate the standard however we see fit," Peterson says.

To be fair, states and the general public are proceeding into Common Core with a lot of unanswered questions.

"It's been like joining a health club where the workouts aren't specified," says Rotherham. "Now the questions are apparent: How many questions will kids have to answer right? Is this what we signed up for?"

Transparency and Engagement
The escalating debate over Common Core may have been inevitable. The fight is over both curriculum and federalism. But was some of the dissension avoidable?

Sandra Stotsky, a scholar in education reform who served on Common Core's standards validation committee in 2009-10, has become one of CCSS's most vocal critics. Among her complaints: The standards were written and approved without an appropriate public comment process.

"Common Core's proponents could have laid the groundwork better and engaged with critics," agrees Rotherham. "There is more support for this among national elites than there is local support."

Now, however, even avid supporters agree that it's time for Common Core's developers to make their case at the state and local level.

"States and localities and organizations that support Common Core need to do their own specific communication with the public," says Stanford's Michael Kirst. "And 2013-14 is the time, the right time. There will be piloted assessments in the spring. This is when the public will get interested."

For some, it may be too late. Stotsky, who directed revisions of Massachusetts's PreK-12 standards from 1999 to 2003, argues that the Common Core cut score for "college and career ready" is dumbed down, particularly when compared with Massachusetts's high standards."

Common Core levels the field, but how low do you level the field?" Stotsky asks. "If these were rigorous standards, that might mean something. We're told these are stronger than anything we've ever had. But these standards lower the level of academic achievement about two grade levels across the board."

Operational Challenges
Reasonable educators can disagree about standards and curriculum, but everyone agrees on one thing: Common Core's plans for online assessments will present an operational headache that could last for years.

The computer-adaptive consortia tests will be administered online. Mathematics tests will require that students show their work to demonstrate their understanding of the concepts behind the questions. ELA assessments will include short essays.

"There will be a two- or three-year period that won't be very pretty," says Bruce Hunter, an associate executive director of the American Association of School Administrators. "There was all this happy talk early on about how the tests would all be online. It turns out that in most states, if you did the testing cycle in the same week statewide, there isn't the bandwidth. You could shut down the Internet."

During a February focus group in Los Angeles, of the representatives present for 40 school districts beginning their Common Core preparations, only one reported that he had received sufficient technical support.

"There will be 13,625 operating school districts—100,000 public schools—all vying to change something at the same moment," Hunter says. "I do not hear opposition to Common Core or the staff development required. What I hear are [fears about the] technical issues."

A few states may be ahead of the game on the technical side. This spring, Utah public schools will implement a statewide computer-adaptive system. Over a five-year period, the state will spend $6.7 million to transition to online testing—a move that was planned before Common Core was in the picture.

But even when the computers and the Wi-Fi and the technical support are all in place, school districts will have another, more slippery challenge to contend with: public expectations of test results.

As we've already seen, wholly new curricula, standards, and assessments will inevitably lead to a drop in test scores—at least initially.

Kentucky was an early adopter of the new standards, and the state's teachers taught a Common Core curriculum in the 2011-12 school year. After the first assessment, a paper-and-pencil test designed by Pearson to align with the new curricula, the state proficiency rate dropped more than 30 points. New York state released similar results in August for the 2012-13 school year: Students in grades 3-8 scored 20 to 30 percent lower than the year before.

"Relying on one test is a mistake," says Hunter. "The ­question is, how do we track better learning? What superintendents and principals need right now is for states to help the public [to have] realistic expectations. When you switch tests, scores drop. What we need is for parents not to feel they got shortchanged, or that we haven't properly measured what children have learned. It'll take a while, and in some places, it'll take longer than others."

The Next Stage
Can Common Core achieve its goal of leveling the playing field across all states and creating comparable data?

Some say no, but advocates believe it will get close.

"There is no apples-to-apples [comparison], even if all kids have the same curriculum and take the same test," says Hunter. "Schools are funded unequally. Not everybody has the same opportunity to learn. Common Core gets us closer, but there is no silver bullet."

The standards may not be as rigorous as some critics would like, but they're an improvement on what most states have now, Hunter adds.

Even as state education officials and policymakers debate the standards' merits and companion assessments, the next chapter for the initiative has begun. Teachers across the country are unpacking the standards to see what they might really mean for classroom instruction.

The extreme left and right may never agree on what American schoolchildren should be taught, and how, but these new standards, properly implemented, have the potential to mark a sea change for teaching in the United States.

"Common Core is a huge game changer," says Stanford's Kirst. "It is one of the most important movements in my 50-year career. It's worth fighting for."     


Fall 2013—

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