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In Defense of the Common Core and Its Tests

As everyone in the education community knows only too well, the Common Core State Standards and the national tests designed to work with them are under attack from the left and the right. Forty-six states originally adopted the Common Core.  Four states have since rejected the it (Oklahoma, Indiana, South Carolina and Nebraska) while many other states have reviewed and renamed the standards, while keeping the majority of the documents intact. The two testing consortia have seen a more dramatic exodus, leaving one on the edge of insolvency.

That’s a pity, because both the Common Core and the new assessments are vast improvements over what was in place and could actually move the education system forward, helping prepare more students for life in the 21st Century. This is an instance where we can’t afford to let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

I’m not basing this conclusion on a philosophical commitment to national standards and tests. Rather, my organization was hired by more than a dozen states to advise them on how best to transition to new tests tied to the Common Core. That led us to compare the previous standards to the common standards and to the two new assessments developed by the Partnership for the Assessment of College and Career Readiness (PARCC) and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium.

In this post and two that will follow, I will share what we’ve learned and why we think states should stick with the common standards and tests. First, let me focus on the Common Core.

In every state where we compared a state’s previous standards with the Common Core, we saw more rigor and focus in mathematics under the new standards. While the changes in rigor in English language arts are less clear, the focus on evidence-based argumentative writing and on informational texts has been positive.  

Contrary to some opponents’ claims that the Common Core has forced the elimination of teaching fiction, the addition of argument and informational text has been welcomed by many, especially in the business world. While I have not investigated the previous standards in every state, in every case that we examined, the Common Core brought more K-12 coherence, focus, and rigor than was there previously.

It is useful to remember why we are talking about common standards and assessments. The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) required tests in reading and mathematics in grades 3 to 8 and at least once in high school. It didn’t take long to observe the wildly different proportions of students deemed proficient from one state to the next, but it was hard to compare states’ results given that the students, content standards, assessments, and cut scores were all different.

The illusion started to blow up when scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed that states with similar performance on NAEP could have vastly different performance on their state tests. This led the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to create the Common Core State Standards.

Read More: Bursting the Bubbles in American Testing

Once we had a set of common standards, we needed common tests and cut scores. The Obama administration agreed to use funds from the financial crises recovery to pay for development of two assessment consortia: PARCC and Smarter Balanced. At the peak, 46 states were in one or both consortia, which aimed to move beyond “bubble tests” into a new generation of testing that promoted deeper learning.

Then public opinion soured. Some critics wrongly cast the standards as a national curriculum stripping control from local school districts, while other decried what they considered an overemphasis on testing.

Having been on the front lines of this reform, I learned that at least some of the opposition to the Common Core was in fact an opposition to what people thought was meant by standards-based education.For many, this was their first exposure to the movement that emphasizes explicit learning targets for students, assessments designed to evaluate student learning of these standards, and results are reported in terms of student mastery (or proficiency).

States-rights advocates and incoming Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos are simply wrong when they suggest the Common Core impinges on local control of public education. Their insistence that creation of content standards is state responsibility and prerogative sounds like an argument that would make Jefferson proud.  

But such arguments not only overlook the fact that states adopted the Common Core voluntarily, but they also misunderstand the true locus of authority in curriculum in American education.

In practice, local control is an illusion. Teachers and principals are often wed to their textbooks. There are relatively few educational publishers and their survival depends on being adopted by as many districts as possible. Rather than organizing texts according to the most essential content and skills common to many states’ standards, they tend to provide superficial coverage of a wide-range of topics found in most states’ learning targets.

Noted mathematics researcher William Schmidt famously remarked that the only educational category where we led the world was in the thickness of our texts, which then leads to a curriculum that is “a mile wide and an inch deep” as teachers race to cover all of the material in the books.

Even those Jeffersonian critics of the Common Core would have to acknowledge that while they are fighting against one authority, they are allowing a more distant and surreptitious entity (textbook publishers) to dictate the curriculum in their schools. It is hard to blame publishers, because except in limited cases, they survive by appealing to the broadest market possible.  

The Common Core has helped change this in a couple of key ways. First, the textbook publishers, spurred in part by evaluations produced by organizations such as EdReports, have begun to produce materials aligned with the Common Core. Theoretically, this will lead to more focused, shorter, and relevant texts in many states.

Read More: What's Next for the Common Core and Its Assessments?

Perhaps more importantly, the Common Core unleashed the collective creativity of educators across multiple states to produce new curricular resources. The best known of these is EngageNY that was originally created from New York’s Race to the Top funds, but is now self-sustaining.

Additionally, websites like Teachers Pay Teachers have proliferated because of the opportunity to share educational resources across states with common standards. Weakening the textbook publishers’ control over curriculum is one of the most powerful benefits of the Common Core.

If we reject the Common Core, painstakingly developed with input from educators and researchers, we are essentially ceding our standards back to textbook publishers.

Scott F. Marion is president of the National Center for the Improvement of Educational Assessment.