Rotten To The Common Core

protestersOn Saturday, B, the boys, and I joined somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 other people in a rally to protest the state of education in New York.  There are many problems, but they all seem to stem from two words: Common Core.

Awhile back, it looked like we had a problem.  Our students were graduating high school and college and finding that the job markets demanded much more from them.  So a solution was devised.  And, in typical politician form, it was decided that students’ progress needed to be measured.  After all, we needed to make sure, at every step of the way, that kids were being taught in the right way and that teachers were teaching in the right way.  Anything else would go against the politicians’ great plan.

The federal politicians demanded that all schools follow set guidelines.  However, they neglected to include one important piece to help schools follow said guidelines: funding.  This was what is called an "unfunded mandate."  Basically, they said: "You are required to follow this but we won’t pay for it at all."  So school districts were faced with a difficult choice: Raise taxes or cut extraneous subjects.  Where "extraneous subjects" are things such as art and music that don’t get reflected in the test scores.

Ah, the tests.  Remember how I mentioned that the teachers and students needed to be measured at every turn?  Well, the best way to do this (if you are a politician setting the rules) is by requiring the students to take tests.  In New York State’s case, it was decided that next year would be the first year that "Common Core" was implemented but that this would be the first year for the Common Core tests.  How can you test on something that hasn’t been implemented yet?  Easy.  You call it a baseline.  Scientists use it all the time.

Of course, scientists don’t typically experiment on children without their parents’ permission.

So the kids were forced to take extremely difficult tests.  Couldn’t get much worse, could it?  Of course, it can.

rotten-to-the-common-coreFirst of all, remember that the teachers are being tested too.  No, they’re not filling in Scantron forms.  Instead, their students’ scores will reflect on their annual reviews.  If their students do poorly, they do poorly.  Never mind if their students include kids with dyslexia or other learning disabilities that make tests a poor method of measuring knowledge.  Also, you should probably ignore that the kids, already stressed by the prospect of difficult tests, will find additional pressure on them once they realize that their beloved teachers will get punished if they do poorly.  No pressure.

NHL-JSL-ProtestingIn fact, once you tie teacher reviews to the test, you create a situation where the teacher HAS to teach to the test.  Any time that the teacher spends outside of test preparation is time lost and the potential test scores decrease.  The entire curriculum becomes All Test All The Time.

This isn’t hypothetical.  Many kids are experiencing this already.  A friend of mine, Mitch (aka GayNYCDad), has had his elementary school child come home all school year with practice test questions and practice tests as homework.  His entire course of study has been designed to prepare him to answer some multiple choice test questions correctly.  Time spent actually learning is time lost because the only thing that is important is The Test.

And just as one final insult, the test is designed and run by Pearson Education.  New York State pays Pearson $32 million over four years to administer the test.  With millions of dollars (not to mention millions of children’s futures) at stake, you’d think there’d be some accountability, right?  The tests are definitely open to inspection by educational professionals who make sure the questions are developmentally appropriate?  Right?

Wrong.

The tests are super-secret.  Teachers aren’t allowed to look at them at all.  Parents are forbidden from seeing them.  The tests are to be filled out by the students and then sent back to Pearson for grading.  Once graded, the tests "vanish."  I know of at least one instance where a child, overwhelmed by the stress of the situation, vomited on the test.  When State Ed was contacted, they said to bag the puked upon test up and send it back to them.  Under no circumstances were they to simply toss it in the trash!

As for the test questions, I know of four teachers (who shall remain nameless for obvious reasons) who peeked at one question.  These four teachers (who all have advanced degrees) answered the question themselves and they each came up with different answers.  Just to be clear, this was a multiple choice question and one teacher came up with A, another B, a third C, and the fourth answered D.  If teachers have trouble answering these questions, what chance do our kids have?

It gets worse, though.  Pearson has included passages from their books in the New York State tests.  So districts who buy books from Pearson have an advantage over districts who don’t.  Yes, Pearson is leveraging the tests to increase their own sales.  Big business helping itself get bigger at our kids’ expense!

What about the politicians who are forcing this on everyone?  Surely they can be reasoned with, right?  After all, they are elected officials and so answer to the public.  Unfortunately, New York Education Commissioner John King, Jr. has dug in his heels against all opposition  In fact, King’s communications director, Tom Dunn, has tried to bully a principal who blogs on the side into taking down a critical blog post about the tests.

I’m not opposed to tests in general and better educational standards are a laudable goal.  However, over-stressing and over-testing our kids is wrong.  Taking teachers and confining them into ONLY what is on the test is wrong.  And pouring millions of dollars to a big business with no accountability is wrong.

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