In 2001, President George W. Bush laid the groundwork for what politicians and policymakers now consider to be the panacea for college and career readiness: testing. Under No Child Left Behind, standardized testing became an educational staple in the US, and it has remained in a hotbed of debate ever since.
In 2009, standardized testing evolved into something new and as equally debated: the Common Core.
Established from the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the Common Core was created as a way for states to level the playing field in education. That is, it provided states with identical educational standards for its students to meet. These standards include English Language Arts/Literacy (in the Social Sciences, Science, and Technical Subjects) and Mathematics.
Keeping in line with the goals of standardized testing, the Common Core was established primarily as a way to prepare students for college and for their future careers. However, it supposedly differs from standardized testing in its format and approach. Instead of the standard multiple choice question format, the Common Core utilizes “critical thinking skills and complex student learning” that go beyond “fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills.” This statement came directly from Arne Duncan, the U.S. Secretary of Education, in his 2009 speech entitled “Beyond the Bubble: the Next Generation of Assessments.”
After being implemented in more than forty states, the assessments have now come in—and the results aren’t what Duncan envisioned.
Over the past year, more than half of all states that originally adopted the Common Core have since abandoned it, citing its high cost of implementation and its high difficulty for students as problematic.
The Common Core was intended to be used with online testing, which meant that schools had to have computers, computer accessories, bandwidths and other technological necessities—and this was just to test its students. Forget the other costs of daily instruction. Many state educational centers also cited that the program was too difficult for its students. One such example of this came from the Vermont State Board of Education.
One week ago, the Vermont Board sent letters out to parents after receiving its student’s Common Core scores. The letters essentially (and rather boldly) told the parents to ignore their student’s poor scores. In the letter the Board writes, “[the scores] are too simplistic and too negative a message to students,” adding that they “are based on a narrow definition of college and career readiness.” They even throw in that “most successful adults fail to score well on [these] tests,” which is worrisome in its own sense, but I’ll leave that be.
The tests are structured so that the difficulty of the questions increases as the student moves up through the grade levels. Ideally, students will be ready to begin in Kindergarten, develop essential skills for that grade, take their tests, pass them, and move on to the first grade, where the pattern continues until twelfth grade where the student supposedly has the knowledge and skills necessary for success in college and in the work force.
What the Common Core fails to do is realize that not all students begin at the same level. There will be students who are ready to start at the third grade level, because their knowledge and skills either match or surpass the level necessary to successfully answer the questions, and there will be students who are far below from that level. It’s as if the Common Core expects these students to shoot for the moon when they can’t even pick up the bow-and-arrow.
Separate from the Common Core’s approach, its content ignores a large chunk of studies, namely the humanities. Students are not tested on the arts, performance or visual, philosophy, languages, or other studies of the human condition. They’re tested strictly on five components of English: reading, writing, speaking and listening, grammar and vocabulary and media and technology (the last of which I’m not convinced belongs), as well as certain domains in mathematics: operations, measurement and data, geometry, statistics and probability, equations, etc.
The content is very rigid, and young adults who are trying to figure out the world around them do not need rigidity, they need flexibility. Not all students have the same passions, and limiting their learning to a handful of pre-determined standards does not provide them an atmosphere for personal growth.
Its overarching goal, too, reeks of cliché. “College and career readiness” has become a vacuous phrase. What does it mean to be ready for college, let alone for a career? I’m in college and I still can’t tell you if I’m ready or not. Furthermore, knowing what I want to do for a career is utterly inconceivable at this point.
My best guess is that to be ready for these challenges, the student needs to figure out where his deepest interests lie, and how he could best incorporate those interests into a sustainable lifestyle. If tests can teach students how to do this, I’d be learning new vocabulary and reiterating PEMDAS nonstop. It hasn’t helped yet, but who knows.
The Vermont Board was on to something when they sent out those letters. They ostensibly told parents that the Common Core doesn’t matter, that tests don’t matter, and that their children will be alright in the end. In a sense, this is all true, as far as “college and career readiness” is concerned.
Students will learn to be ready for these things by pursuing their interests and by experiencing life in its rawest forms. They don’t learn who they are by taking tests, no matter what politicians like Duncan seem to say otherwise.