Common Core Tests Fuel Criticism

Posted by & filed under CGR Staff, Rochester Business Journal.

Kent GardnerIn last month’s column, I joined the beleaguered defenders of the Common Core standards. The evidence shows that American children leave school having learned less than peers in other nations—27th of 34 nations tested in math, 17th in reading and 21st in science. Mobility recommends some level of standardization of “scope & sequence”—what children learn when—particularly in the elementary grades. The expressed goals of the architects of Common Core are hard to argue with—that reading instruction should challenge students to think about the content, not simply decode the superficial meaning of the words; that nonfiction should receive greater emphasis; that math should focus on analytical, not simply technical, skills; that instruction across the disciplines should reinforce independent thinking.

Ah, but developing principles and putting them into practice are two different things. The ambitions of the standards are breathtaking. The tradition of local control is deeply embedded in America—the tug-a-war between school boards and state and federal regulatory bodies has been going on for a very long time. While Common Core was developed by the states, the Obama Administration has embraced them—perhaps unwisely! CC supporters winced when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan expressed support, as this revealed that the Administration had badly misread the political tea leaves. Although I believe that the CC’s architects have done a fabulous job staying neutral on content questions, some controversy is inevitable. Even the question of when to teach fractions or whether algebra should be taught before high school can spur discussion.

A longtime friend of CGR contacted me after my last column to highlight disagreement over the Advanced Placement U.S. History curriculum. This deserves its own column—but briefly, there are no history content standards in the Common Core. The CC addresses history only in the context of literacy. Nor does the NYS CC application address the content of history instruction. READ the standards at, specifically the language addressing grade 11-12 History/Social Studies. It is hard to find fault with objectives like these:

  • Evaluate various explanations for actions or events and determine which explanation best accords with textual evidence, acknowledging where the text leaves matters uncertain.
  • Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).

The “flash point” has been the application of the CC language to the AP curriculum. This did not come from the National Governor’s Association but from the College Board, which controls the AP tests. The nature of ideology in the AP curriculum is a subject I can’t address in a few words, thus the need for another column. It should not influence our opinions of the CC standards, however. See this Newsweek story for a summary of the controversy.

What about the tests? This is where the rubber meets the road. New York was first out of the box with CC-aligned tests and, according to some, rushed the job. See The Washington-based Fordham Institute (FI)—a strong supporter of CC—conducted a review of the test questions released by NYS Education and gave them mixed reviews. FI finds the tests harder—although this is a feature, not a bug—but agrees that some of the questions are confusing. FI also takes NYS to task for some of the reading selections. One of the 5th grade selections includes quite a bit of vernacular language. Other texts rely on context that is not universal, e.g. sailing, BMX biking and snowshoeing. FI also notes that including a passage on global warming provoked a political reaction unnecessarily.

The Fordham Institute has been paying very close attention to the NYS rollout. See here for a listing.

There is no substitute for sitting down with the actual tests—which you can do. Follow this link for access to annotated questions from last year’s NYS tests.

In my own review of the ELA test questions, I’m struck by the length of the reading passages—in the 3rd grade test, one is about 450 words and another about 650. I get the point that “deep reading” and longer texts are part of the CC approach. But I worry about tests that put a premium on speed for new readers. The 450 word essay (on making maple syrup) leads to just 4 questions. The 650 word short story about an otter leads to 5 questions. I suspect that the variation in reading speed among 3rd graders is quite significant—on that basis alone, some students will have much more time to consider the questions and consider their answers. Moreover, if a child has a problem with a particular selection, all of the questions related to that selection are affected.

The sample math questions seem quite straightforward. From the 5th grade test:

  • A recipe for 1 batch of muffins included 2/3 cup of raisins. Ina made 2 ½ batches of muffins. How many cups of raisins did she use? (Choices are 1 4/6, 1 5/6, 2 2/6, 3 1/6)
  • Consider the number 136.25. In a different number, the 6 represents a value which is one-tenth of the value of the 6 in the number above. What value is represented by the 6 in the other number? (Choices are six hundredths, six tenths, six ones, six tens)

It is easy to vilify the Common Core. It’s much harder, as non-educators, to judge it fairly. I beg you to judge for yourself before you sign any petitions! I think that the National Governors Association has done the nation a service by establishing a robust set of common learning standards. NYS Education has been bold in converting the standards into a curriculum—and, perhaps, too bold in incorporating the standards into the state tests. But let’s not let a bumpy rollout derail what is a commendable and badly needed initiative.