A full year before students around the nation submit to the new Common Core standardized tests, the federally-backed program is already causing chaos and confusion at local school board meetings, in the classroom and at the dinner table.
As critics fear Washington is poised to take control of what and how local districts teach kids, school administrators are adopting new curriculum in an effort to ensure their students outperform their peers and parents worry that their children are being used as academic guinea pigs. As the program gets closer to full implementation, a full-blown backlash is developing despite assurances from supporters that it is merely a test aimed at establishing a national standard.
“It’s just now reaching their school districts and their children’s schools and they want to know, ‘What is this, and why is it being forced on us?’” said the Cato Institute’s Neil McCluskey.
When 90 percent of states signed on to subject K-12 students to the Common Core math and English standards being pushed by the federal government, the program looked like an unqualified success. Kids around the nation would be tested once a year in grades 3-8 in math and English language arts, and once in high school, either in the 10th or 11th grades. Finally, students throughout the country could be measured by the same yardstick, long before taking college entrance exams. Local districts that excelled at educating children could be singled out, and ones who lagged could also be identified in order to address problems.
But if what happened in New York and Kentucky, two of the 45 states that have signed on to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, is any indication, the chaos has only just begun. Those states administered their own standardized tests aligned with Common Core, and the results were disastrous. Just 31 percent of New York students in the third through eighth grades were deemed proficient in math and English on the new tests, down about 50 percent from the traditional test given the year before. Kentucky, which also implemented its own Common Core-aligned tests, experienced similar declines in scores.
Other states are waiting until at least 2014-15 to implement Common Core tests that are still in development. But at the state and district level, educators are tinkering with the curriculum in the hopes of having students prepared for the new tests – sometimes with disastrous results. In the affluent town of Fairfield, Conn., the school district last year adopted a new math curriculum for eighth- and ninth-graders called College Preparatory Math, with an eye toward the looming Common Core tests. But a year later, standardized test scores dipped and, according to one parent, Kelly Crisp, kids who had always done well in math were left disillusioned with the subject.
Five parents filed a complaint with the state over use of the new Algebra 1 book, and, after a protracted battle, forced the district to establish an "instructional online interactive forum" for Algebra 1 students and adopt new regulations for pilot programs as part of a settlement on the controversy over use of a textbook. Crisp said she worries about some 800 students who spent a year studying from a textbook hastily adopted in the frenzy to align with Common Core. The district later disavowed the book.
“Common Core is forcing districts to re-think math curriculum,” Crisp said. “And in cases like ours, they are making poor decisions.”
McCluskey said school districts are “flailing to try to adopt curriculum that will prepare students for Common Core, but there is no real standard.
“What we’re seeing is the market flooded with curriculum that claims to be Common Core aligned,” McCluskey said.
While the Obama administration has embraced Common Core, the plan was actually drawn up by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Carissa Miller, deputy executive director of Council of Chief State School Officers, bristles at the suggestion that Common Core seeks to impose a Washington-based, politically correct curriculum on local districts.
“It’s a misperception,” Miller said. “States have had standards for a long time. This would just set common standards, and standards are not curriculum.”
As an example, Miller cites a third-grade writing standard in which students must be able to recall information from print or digital sources, write notes on it and then sort it into relevant categories. The process, Miller notes, is the same for all students. But the source materials used to prepare for it are up to the teacher or district.
David Coleman, whose nonprofit Student Achievement Partners was hired by the National Governors Association to design the Common Core standards, said parents should look at the standards set forth before deciding whether they are good or bad for their children.
“They are a set of standards that we expect kids to know,” said Coleman, now president of the College Board, where he is redesigning the SAT to reflect Common Core standards.. “It is not taking away any kind of state or district rights to say how or what kids are taught.
"Any time you do something new, there’s always concern. It is valid for parents to be concerned. But with more information, it will become apparent that this is simply setting a high bar and having a uniform standard across the nation.”
Proponents say that because Common Core only applies to math and reading, fears that revisionist history or agenda-driven social studies will find their way into K-12 textbooks are unfounded. But in McCluskey’s words, “standards are designed to set a box around curriculum,” meaning whatever is on the test will have to be taught.
Phyllis Schlafly of The Eagle Forum goes even further.
“Common Core means federal control of school curriculum, i.e., control by Obama administration left-wing bureaucrats,” wrote Schlafly. “The control mechanism is the tests (called assessments). Kids must pass the tests in order to get a high school diploma or admittance to college. If they haven’t studied a curriculum based on Common Core standards, they won’t score well on the tests.”