Will Common Core Change Everything?

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We must note that educators and students may have gotten really good at preparing for the wrong outcomes in the last decade of education. As Common Core standards and assessments are implemented, many districts are seeing dramatic drops in standardized test scores in most areas and grade levels. Stories of low scores hitting the newspapers make for shocking reading, but they don’t really get at the true meaning of what has happened. Students got very good at practicing for and taking standardized tests in that No Child Left Behind decade. Teachers were really good at teaching to tests, because they had to. Now that those tests are changing, that practicing to the test doesn’t work well anymore. Teaching to the test was and is an awful idea that has no national boundaries, and if we walk that path again, we will diminish all the good that Common Core, or any good teaching and learning idea, can provide.

When you listen to the best educators talk about Common Core teaching, what you will hear is good, experiential lessons where teachers provide students with options for discovery in their learning. Students research, create, and back up those discoveries using all the tools at their disposal, including technology. There are no workbooks for this, and no amount of wall-hanging best-test-practice posters can take the place of teaching that sort of how-to in the classroom each day. That’s teaching, and that’s learning, and that is what’s needed in the classroom and beyond.

Superintendents are now dealing with those not-so-stellar standardized test scores, while at the same time telling educators to stay the Common Core course. School leaders are also trying to explain why those test scores aren’t as good, too. Changing the path is normal and understandable. However, sometimes the pendulum swings too far in an effort to do it. The best warning this time may be that students can’t be led down another path that teaches to the test, because that is not what Common Core means, or what teaching and learning should be. The bottom line is that a day of student learning wasted is too much time lost, let alone a year—or unforgivably—a decade. We need to get this as close to right as possible this time.

As children enter school this year, you’ll discover that some of the curriculum mapping has changed. Some things that were taught later are being moved up to earlier grades. While that’s not new, and can be beneficial, like earlier algebra teaching in mathematics, there should also be a warning. Are we changing the order of teaching content because it is appropriate for students, or are we moving that content because it is better for test results? Remember that No Child Left Behind had all the best intentions. The Common Core is an idea that, if done right, can be a way to get back to great experiential teaching and learning. If that is done daily, and educators have the professional development and tools needed, standardized test scores will find their appropriate levels, and it will be done with the least possible test-taking training. Emphasis will be placed, again, on what students do and learn, rather than who has had the best practice in test-taking skills.

Ken Royal

Ken Royal is an educator with 34 years of classroom/school and instructional technology teaching experience, as well as a blogger on all things education and education technology. Teaching accomplishments include: 4-time district teacher of the year, Connecticut Middle School Teacher of the Year, as well as Bill and Melinda Gates award for Technology School of Excellence. He is an Education storyteller. Follow @KenRoyal on Twitter.
2 Comments on this post.
  • MBell
    29 August 2013 at 9:08 am -

    yes, and the same time, no (it’s very zen that way)

    first, the pressure to teach to the test will remain and may even intensify, since now it is individual teachers, not schools, whose futures are at stake; it will still be possible to teach to the test (I believe that both consortia will have multiple-choice items on the test, but I c/b wrong about that), it will just be harder and require different strategies; as long as there are outsize, unproven, and draconian punishments attached to tests, people will try to get the best results possible, by whatever means necessary; it is also important to note that for the most part, it was not individual teachers who decided to embrace weeks of test prep; it was school and district administrators

    second, effective teachers (I won’t use “good” in this context) will do what they have always done–facilitate learning in a way that makes the most sense to students; the only difference is that instead of teaching one set of standards, they will now be teaching a different set; read the second paragraph of the article without the words “Common Core” in it and you get a good general description of effective teaching

    third, it is important to remember that the Common Core and the tests that assess them are two separate things; if the tests went away tomorrow, the Common Core would remain; also, if we measure the effectiveness of student learning of the Common Core solely via test scores, then we as a nation have learned nothing from the failure of NCLB

    fourth, something unexpected will happen, because something unexpected always happens (that’s the way the universe works); it may be good or bad, or a bit of each; as you say, Ken, NCLB started with good (yet severely misguided) intentions, and it led to an exponential increase in test prep, which some saw coming, though not its architects

    fifth, given that Common Core, the new consortia tests, and the requirements of Race to the Top and NCLB waivers are all being implemented more or less simultaneously, it will be extremely difficult to determine what educational effects are the result of Common Core alone

  • TRice
    4 September 2013 at 6:04 pm -

    Hi Ken,
    As an educator who has seen standardized testing from different perspectives, I think the best thing we can do is to prepare students with not only a good foundation and skills for “learning to learn”, but also an understanding of what standardized testing is asking. Students should not only understand what is being asked, but also strategies to solve the question. Good classroom teachers don’t surprise their students with tests, they prepare them with not only content, but also an understanding of what constitutes a good response – no surprises!
    The problem with NCLB was not that there was an assessment, but that the assessment was not matched to what it was supposed to measure; it was a mismatched pair of ugly socks from the beginning. The NH version of state assessment, the NECAP, was standardized test designed to be “Norm-Referenced scoring” (scoring students essentially against a bell-curve) and not “Criteria-Referenced” (scoring students by what they demonstrate or know).
    The Common Core is a new look and a fresh start, and as with any “new” trend in education there will be a dip in performance; it is all new. I like the look of the Common Core State Standards (especially since many states worked together to make it as opposed to a federally created assessment), but I will hold off on any opinion until I see the final version of the assessment (re: the Smarter Balanced Assessment for NH).