There is much angst about Common Core Standards (CCS). People disagree about what children should know and be able to do. The new standards focus on learning how to evaluate how well students understand what they read and how well they grasp math concepts. All students are expected to be college and career ready. The arguments have a familiar ring. Students differ. The Florida League of Women Voters asks: Is it fair to have the same high expectations for all students? Is it fair not to? Is this even the correct question?
Some say that the standards are not the problem, the amount of testing required to measure the standards. They argue that testing to evaluate teachers and schools is misguided. How is the Florida legislature responding? Is it possible to find some common ground?
Having the same standards is the ‘common’ part of Common Core. In 2009, 45 state governors agreed that all states should endorse high standards for all students. Only Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia said no to Common Core standards. Minnesota adopted only the math standards. By 2015, Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina had formally joined this opt out group.
If only seven out of 50 states have dropped out, most recognize that America’s students need better critical thinking and problem solving skills in order to compete in a global economy. Even though Florida and some other states did modify and rename their standards, they did not revert to basic skills testing. Florida, for example, now calls its new test the Florida Standards Assessment (FSA).
The heart of the argument is over testing. The new tests require costly computer bandwidth and labs and take more time to administer. While thirty states are still committed to the two original CC tests: the PARCC and the SBA, the remaining states have developed their own tests. We may have common standards, but we will not have comparable test results.
Parents complain that excessive testing hurts students, schools, and teachers unfairly. Members of the legislature are openly discussing which policies are effective and fair. Should students be held back only on the basis of a test score? Should students, teachers and schools be penalized based on a single test? Should constant preparation for testing crowd out art, music, and physical education?
If we drop annual tests, what do we lose? The U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, argues that annual testing keeps the focus on struggling students in low income areas. Without test scores, he says, the public will forget the problem of failing schools. The scores, however, don’t solve the problem. What appears to help, according to reports on the U.S. DOE website, is more time in school and intensive tutoring.
What is happening to address the issues?
- Some parents are organizing opt out of testing movements across the nation. Florida law, however, mandates that students participate in state assessments, and districts are required to notify parents of consequences if a child does not participate.
- The Florida PTA has asked for a two year delay in reporting school grades. The Florida Department of Education will report grades in 2015, but they will withhold any rewards or penalties for one year. The Florida Standards Assessment is expected to be more difficult, and passing standards will be set in 2015. Gains in scores between 2014 and 2015 may be hard to measure given the difference in the FCAT 2.0 and the FSA. Gauging how much a child learns from one year to the next has its own problems.
- Prominent statisticians have shown that at most, schools and teachers account for 30% of student test score gains. The remainder is due to influences outside of the school’s control (Haertel, 2014). Even worse, In 2013 Guerino et al stated that “…when teachers are assigned high or low performing students, and measurement error is present, value added models (achievement gain scores) may mischaracterize teachers as high effective or ineffective. Moreover, models may disagree as to who is thus characterized.” Florida has examples of this problem when Teachers of the Year received low ratings.
- If the Florida Legislature returns to testing for grades 3, 8, and 11 only, Florida could be penalized by the federal government. Yet, federal policy may change. The new leadership in Congress has introduced legislation in both the Senate and the House to do just that.
Public dissension over the amount of testing and the use of test scores to drive achievement has reached a critical level. Children and districts who opt out of testing face consequences. Shifting instruction from memorizing facts to thinking about using information to solve real world problems, however, is a step forward. Florida is ‘in’ on higher standards. The jury is still ‘out’ on the use of testing to measure them. Finding reasonable solutions to valid concerns on both sides will require state and national legislatures to use the critical thinking and problem solving skills that the children will encounter.
A version of this post appeared in the Gainesville Sun on February 15th, 2015.