A few weeks ago, Diane Ravitch posted a challenge on Twitter:
“I challenge anyone who supports the current testing regime to take the 12th grade test for graduation and release the results to the media.”
The tweet was a response to a post published by Valerie Strauss in early December that told the story of a prominent and, by all accounts, very successful Florida school board member who took a state ELA and math test and publicized his results. (He earned 17 percent in math, 62 percent in reading.) His experience caused him to question to validity of using tests as part of a statewide accountability system. He said:
“It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning…I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”
Strauss agreed and concluded:
“There you have it. A concise summary of what’s wrong with present corporately driven education change: Decisions are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”
The post and Ravitch’s challenge set off a firestorm of anti-testing vitriol. This was proof, people argued, that “corporate-driven” standards- and accountability-driven reforms should be abandoned.
Intrigued, I went and took the modified test that Strauss posted on her blog. My results: 86% on math (6/7) 100% on reading (7/7). Perhaps I’m an outlier? (Click on these links to take the reading or math test yourself.)
If you’re to believe the rhetoric around Common Core, these new college- and career-ready standards are poised to usher in major education changes—changes that will help better prepare American students for the rigors of university coursework and the workplace.
On the other hand, if you’re to read individual states’ own descriptions of the differences between the Common Core and existing ELA and math standards, the changes seem far less dramatic.
Since they have adopted the Common Core State Standards (CCSS), nearly every state has undertaken some kind of review that compared existing ELA and math standards to the CCSS. And, almost without exception, these comparisons found near-perfect alignment between the CCSS and state ELA and math standards.
A Tennessee’s curriculum and assessment “crosswalk,” for example, found that “97 percent of the CCSS ELA standards have a match in Tennessee’s ELA standards, with 90 percent being rated an excellent or good match.” On the math side, Tennessee found that there are “no grade-level difference[s] in Kindergarten and only a 1 percent difference in 1st grade…” Similar comparisons by state departments of education around the country have found similar levels of alignment. (This despite the fact that our own analysis of state ELA and math standards found significant differences between a majority of state standards and the CCSS.)
There are several problems with these crosswalks and their findings.
For starters, these crosswalk comparisons too often lose the forest for the trees, focusing on narrow and sometimes
“Believing we can improve schooling with more tests,” Robert Schaeffer of FairTest once argued, “is like believing you can make yourself grow taller by measuring your height.”
It’s a great line. Such statements are the seductive battle cries of the anti-standards and anti-assessment crowd. But is there any reason behind this kind of rhetoric?
Parents rarely complain that their young babies are being weighed and measured too much—even though it can create an extra burden in an often stressful time in their lives. That’s not because parents naively believe these basic tests will make their babies grow faster or taller, but rather because they trust that their doctor will use the data from these and other tests to flag early problems and develop individualized plans to help their children thrive.
Of course, education assessments—particularly end-of-year summative assessments—are far more complicated than scales. But the purpose of tests in school is no different: to flag problems early and often so that they can be addressed before they become lifelong issues.
In education, like in medicine, there are unintended consequences to relying on a limited number of tests in a narrow range of subjects. According to a report released by Common Core last week, 76 percent of teachers feel that critical subjects like science, history, and art are being “crowded out by extra
Common Core added an important piece to the mounting evidence that curriculum continues to narrow at the expense of vital academic subjects with yesterday’s release of survey data from 1,001 third through 12th-grade teachers. Fully two-thirds of those surveyed agreed that extra attention to math and language arts is crowding out other subjects, with the sentiment particularly strong among elementary-school teachers. Of those who saw the curriculum narrowing, 93 percent pointed to state tests as the primary culprits.
Focusing on math and reading at the expense of subjects like science and social studies requires serious scrutiny, and Common Core should be applauded for bringing more attention to the issue. Critics of test-based accountability will be quick to cite the survey as evidence of the deleterious effects of testing, but the numbers tell a more complicated story. 90 percent of teachers said that inclusion in state testing results in a subject being taken more seriously. Of those who reported crowding out, 60 percent said that the increased focus on math and language arts boosted test scores and 46 percent agreed that it resulted in improved skills and knowledge. Is the problem testing itself, or that test-based accountability is so narrowly focused in most states?
About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Senior Director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she leads the Institute’s work on state, national, and international standards evaluation and analysis.
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