Opinion: Debunking Common Core standards

In a survey of educational news posted across the web in the month of November, none invokes more emotion than the changes in the national educational landscape with the advent of the Common Core State Standards (CCSS). From recent incendiary comments by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan to pundits on the left and right, no one seems to be able to agree on whether the adoption of national standards is a move in the right direction.
The Common Core itself isn’t the problem. The standards are an attempt to establish clear learning objectives for all students in essential skills they will need to be thoughtful, productive citizens. These standards have been vetted by countless educators, and focus on fostering critical thinking skills and providing students with a strong analytical frame from which to explore their educations.
Yet the Common Core does not come on its own; it arrives with another high-stakes test that will continue to enforce the vexing reality we’ve been living with in Vermont since the advent of the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) act. Both the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC) and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) were designed to assess the Common Core, and are replacing state assessments like the New England Common Assessment Program (NECAP) throughout the 45 states that have adopted the CCSS.
While these assessments are purported as being “next generation” design, the difficulty we face is in how these assessments will be used to measure the performance of our schools. Indeed, if recent research is any indication, this measurement has led to considerable waste. According to a recent School Improvement Grant report from the Department of Education, the school improvement process under NCLB has proven to be a monstrous $5 billion waste of taxpayers’ money.
As a recent transplant to Middlebury, I’ve found the recriminations of NCLB through the Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) measurement puzzling. Vermont was one of five states that did not receive a waiver on the Elementary and Secondary Education Act requirements that spawned NCLB, so we are still stuck in the cycle of recriminations. The best schools across the state have been forced into corrective action through this process, and are struggling with considerable paperwork requirements. To compound the issue, the Vermont Agency of Education is trying to determine how we will make the transition from the NECAP to the CCSS, two entirely different assessment instruments not capable of assessing the totality of a student’s yearly academic growth. There are calls across the country for a moratorium on the accountability of the SBAC and PARCC until we have a baseline to determine their efficacy as summative assessments. These are strong arguments, and should be heeded.
I believe the argument about the merits of the Common Core has become clouded by accountability. In assessing CCSS, we need to shift the conversation on both the national and local levels, to focus on two key areas that will have profound reverberations throughout education: (a) a re-tooled assessment system that incorporates multiple measures of student performance to provide formative feedback to ensure all students have attained essential learning targets of the Common Core, and (b) the establishment of proficiency-based education systems that enable PK-12 students to see the relevance of their educations.
Much work is already under way in Vermont regarding personalized learning and dual enrollment opportunities to bridge high school and college/career opportunities, with a number of bright innovations beginning to take flight. Yet, we find ourselves falling into familiar policy territory as many of these innovations are shaped into statute. We need to find our way out of the innumerable mandates being crafted at a policy level by legislators attempting to prod the system with well-intentioned but often inefficient applications at the school level. We need to recast our conceptions of accountability, and return to what we know has always worked: clearly articulated learning objectives, formative assessment that supports every student in reaching those objectives, and the heart that teachers bring to the classroom to make it happen.
Editor’s note: Peter Burrows, D.Ed., is superintendent of the Addison Central Supervisory Union and has more than two decades of experience in education.

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