Friday, January 11, 2013

Is the common core sending children over an educational cliff?

Guest post by TimeOutDad

As an aspiring school leader, as an educator, as a parent, I am deeply worried about the education of our children.  There’s been a lot of buzz about the Common Core Standards and how they’re supposed to somehow get our children college and/or career ready by raising the standards for all.   Sounds great, right?   Well, the message that seems to have been sent to the test-makers is, “Let’s make these high-stakes tests harder than ever.”  Since higher scores in the past haven’t gotten our students ready for college, then we need to “raise the bar” even higher with even harder reading passages and even harder math problems.  That’ll create more success, right?   REALLY?

Imagine yourself as a third grader.  Eight years old.  Now, let’s click on the latest Sample 3rd Grade English Language Arts sample questions (from, a New York State Education Department website that provides resources for educators and parents) and scroll down to the first reading passage written by Leo Tolstoy.  After reading the passage, go ahead and take a look at the sample test questions.  Go ahead.  Give it a try, and come back when you’re done…

So, what did you think?  Reasonable?  Fair?  How about some math?  That’s our reality.  Our children.  Anyone else see an educational cliff?

(In case you want to see other sample tests for other grades...


  1. And the answer is, when it comes to standards? An the answer is, when it comes to assessment?

  2. Cross-commented on Facebook: There's an urban legend about Disney and a nature film about lemmings. Rumor has it that the film they got wasn't dramatic enough so Disney filmmakers lured lemmings to run over the cliff, thereby making their story more dramatic. I am struck by how much the yelling about these passages reminds me of the the filmmakers.

    There are lots of things to be concerned about - funding inequities, staffing shortages, individualization instruction - and then there are things that are fun to yell about to tell a better a story. These passages fall into the later category.

    The tension and flaw in TimOutDad's argument is that the passage he points to is not what students will be reading. I'll allow SED to explain: "The most striking difference in these sample questions will be in the passages accompanying ELA questions. Passages for these ELA sample questions were taken from public domain sources, while passages for the state assessments can be drawn from copyrighted material. As such, some sample passages may include antiquated language, outdated topics, and other shortcomings. Many are also well-read texts with which teachers and students may be very familiar. This is not indicative of a shift on future state assessments."

    Hopefully, opting out will become available to NYS parents who disagree with the tests. But as of now, it's not. When the tests come, students will be taking the tests with their parents' words ringing in their ears. The passages they encounter will likely not be as boring as Tolstoy but they will be complex. Students will need stamina, matacognitive skills, and confidence to get through them.

    The challenge we face as the adults negotiating the changes in the system is how we communicate with each other - and students - about the changes. I am not sure that pointing to passages that are released with numerous caveats, and ignoring those caveats to tell a better story, is helping.

  3. @DataDiva - Thanks so much for clarifying and for pointing out the caveats which I originally missed at before jumping straight to the sample passages and questions, which did not have all the "warnings." In the past, the sample questions were much closer to the actual tests and therefore more useful for educators, students, and parents. I guess this is what happens when a new test-maker comes into town with their multi-million dollar contracts.

    Still, the tension is still there and the sentiments are very real. Many of our students have taken baseline assessments in mathematics that are significantly tougher and trickier that in the past. I'm sure it'll be the same for the ELA passages and questions. The translation in the classrooms is more stress on teachers, students, and parents. Less time for physical activities, the arts, socialization, inquiry-based learning, and more because we HAVE TO do well on these high-stakes tests, or else... That's no urban legend. It's no fairy tale.

    So, our third graders might not get Leo Tolstoy, but will their "real" tests with "real" passages and "real" questions be any more "real" or relevant?

    1. It's not quite as @DataDiva says.

      That's one thing the SED says. It also says this about the passages:
      Use them to help guide your own text choices for instructional materials and expose students to similarly complex, diverse texts.

      So, yes. We all know this is not the actual passage, but there are plenty of passages that could have been used that were at an appropriate reading level. As a result of using this passage, smart and capable teachers and school leaders in NYC who've read this are lead to believe that this passage should guide their text choice as it has in the past, because, says to.

      Tests and samples should not be about reading the right fine print. They should be about doing what is best for kids. Yet many parents, teachers, and students themselves know this is not best for them, which is why I suggest they just opt out

    2. Testing is a science. It should absolutely be about the small print. Everything SED has put out about text complexity has referenced Appendix A. Selecting text for 3rd grade off a single passage on a DRAFT state assessment question suggests people are feeling overwhelmed and panicking. Misinformation only adds to that frustration and sense of being overwhelmed.

  4. The educational cliff is more than just the problems with levels of content. The Common Core and its assessments create a high-anxiety environment for students and teachers. It ignores all other aims of education except those that assume preparation for some future endeavor like college or work. It ignores all Ericksonian gains in child development and psychology and replaces sound research-based educational practice with a managerial system. It erodes the breadth of richness in favor of that which can more easily be argued can be measured quantitatively. It turns learning environments into cold stale boring places that can only be described as test-prep centers. All with the only conceivable outcome being the ranking and sorting of students ensuring those with cultural advantage retain the privilege of access.

  5. I hate when folks say kids should be reading harder texts. What if they want to read easy texts? I don't care! they're reading! eventually they'll move on, on their own! Why do we have to push them, when we know the consequences of pushing can be really really negative????

    1. Lisa, what are the "really really negative" consequences of pushing students? In my experience the consequences of not pushing students is far worse. Case in point, several years ago a struggling reader was mistakenly placed in my advanced English class. At the end of the semester his grades were all Ds and Fs...except in English where he earned a B. students rise or fall to our expectations.

    2. I wonder if he was struggling or unmotivated. There's a big difference. Some fear CCSS will expect students to work at the frustration level in reading most of the time. SOMETIMES, with proper scaffolding and support? It can be exciting. MOST of the time? Stress and anxiety will build. You know much of a student's success depends on the relationship we build with our students. Sounds like you built a rock-solid relationship along with your high expectations. Brava. But how long would that young man have continued to thrive if he was constantly working beyond his reading level? It's a legitimate concern.

    3. ==Lisa, what are the "really really negative" consequences of pushing students? In my experience the consequences of not pushing students is far worse. ==

      The negative consequences could be that we're pushing them in a direction they don't want to go or that they become reliant on others pushing them rather than knowing how to push themselves. The later is what we often hear is a complaint of employers.

    4. So Lisa, it sounds like the pushing" is not the problem, but who is doing the pushing? Often students need to have that experience of working through a challenging text to realize that they can do it for themselves. So in other words that push that they get from a teacher can help them push themselves in the future.

  6. I agree about the educational cliff! I've written about this as well that much of our educational system is largely set up for the convenience of the adults, but not really effective towards children(