Fotosearch_2 Online_Testsing_bld128776Touted as the cure-all for what’s been labelled our ailing education system, 46 states and the District of Columbia initially adopted the Common Core Standards back in 2010 and 2011. Only Alaska, Nebraska, Texas, and Virginia never took the federal government’s bait.

What are they exactly? Explains their site, “The Common Core is a set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy (ELA). These learning goals outline what a student should know and be able to do at the end of each grade. The standards were created to ensure that all students graduate from high school with the skills and knowledge necessary to succeed in college, career, and life, regardless of where they live …”

Since those heady reform days of old, though, the Common Core landscape is much changed. In fact, at least twelve states have withdrawn from them, including Indiana, Oklahoma, and South Carolina, despite all the politicking and spending.

You see, now that the Standards are out there in our schools, so are their flaws, especially when it comes to math. Those standards, says Stanford University’s Dr. James Milgram, “fall far short of what students need for more advanced work” and calls them “a massive, risky experiment being conducted on our kids.”

He continues with, “Remember ‘fuzzy math’? It’s back with a vengeance under Common Core.” Then he adds, “The classic method of, for example, adding two-digit numbers is to add the digits in the ‘ones’ column, carry the remainder to the ‘tens’ column, and then add the ‘tens’ digits. This ‘standard algorithm’ works first time, every time.”

Instead, the Standards apparently turn this into a two-step process. As Dr. Milgram explains, “The first is to let students choose from several alternative algorithms (number lines, estimating, etc.) for doing one-digit additions, subtractions, and multiplications. The second is probably to extend these student constructions to more complex calculations. (We say ‘probably’ because the standards are not at all clear on this point.)”
His conclusion: “Common Core thus amounts to a disservice to our students. It puts them at least two years behind their peers in high-performing countries, and leaves them ill-prepared for authentic college course work.”

As for the English/Language Arts piece, Eagle Forum notes that books such as Toni Morison’s The Bluest Eye are recommended. The issue with that one: The story line includes a father raping his daughter, graphically described and told from the father’s point of view.

Some of the Common Core exemplars are also raising eyebrows, which Google explains “are sample texts intended to guide educators as they thoughtfully select texts to use as vehicles for teaching the ELA Common Core State Standards (CCSS). While the texts serve as models for each grade span, they should not be considered required grade level reading lists.”

One exemplar considered problematic is David Mitchell’s Black Swan Green for 9th graders, wherein a 13-year-old describes his father’s genitals and a sex act.

An exemplar for fourth and fifth graders is Lucille Fletcher’s play, Sorry, Wrong Number, about which says, “When wires get crossed, a woman accidentally overhears the telephone conversation of two men plotting a murder. Suspense and terror mounts as the woman slowly realizes that the intended victim is herself.” Not everyone is on board with that for youngsters, either.

In other words, the Common Core is not without controversy, and I won’t even get into the lesson plan for third and fourth graders based on the book, Barack Obama: Son of Promise, Child of Hope …

However did we get to such a place with the federal government pulling so many of the education strings? Actually, it started back in March, 2009, soon after Obama moved into the White House. That’s when U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan announced his first Race to the Top grant competition offering states a chance to win a slice of the $4.35 billion set aside for education incentives by Obama’s American Recovery and Restoration Act, aka the Stimulus.

To get a share of those dollars, states, as part of the application process, had to adopt the Common Core Standards, supplementing them with no more than 15% of their own. They also had to commit to expanding their data systems to conform to those of other states and include such information as students’ health and demographics, along with their academic performance.

And because of the downturn in the American economy and strapped budgets, many states went for it—with little time to process it all. In fact, the first two states that “won” had only until January 19, 2010 to sign on to the standards sight unseen.

All that was followed by Obama’s first round of No Child Left Behind waivers offered to release states from, for instance, the law’s mandate that 100% of students reach the proficient level in reading and math by 2014. It was a noble but impossible-to-achieve goal, one that made the waivers a carrot too good to pass up and most states applied. Those have been followed with waiver renewals.

Then with the Common Core firmly in place, in 2010, the Department of Education awarded $362 million in Race to the Top monies to two consortia of states to develop related assessments. The result: The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, better known as PARCC, and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium, aka SBAC. Initially 23 states signed on with PARCC, but that number ultimately dropped to ten, along with the District of Columbia. As for SBAC, its numbers went from 31 states to just 18.

And, by the way, it cost these organizations about $1,000 to craft a single multiple choice question and up to $5,000 to develop the more open-ended ones. In a word, remarkably costly.

Ultimately, since part of the government’s deal required full implementation by this 2014-15 school year, starting this past February–well before children had the benefit of a full-year of learning—millions of children in third grade and up started taking the PARCC, SBAC or state versions of the standardized online Common Core assessments.

Moreover, says ASCD’s March “Policy Points,” nowadays:

• On average, students take mandated state and district standardized tests once per month, accounting for 1.6% of instructional time per year.
• Students take an average of 113 standardized tests between kindergarten and 12th grade.
• 11th graders take more tests than anyone else, with one district reporting that its students spend up to 27 days of the year taking tests.
• The PARCC assessments were originally set to cost $29.50 per student, but a shorter version with more multiple choice questions was developed, thus bringing the cost down to $24 per student.
• SBAC comes in at $27.50 per student.

Also, reports the Washington Post, the PARCC exam takes children between 8 and 10 hours to complete, while the SBAC version requires 7 to 8-1/2 hours.

As for the cost of all things Common Core, a study by Accountability Works found that the states likely incurred $10.5 billion up front in one-time costs for teacher professional development, textbooks and aligned instructional materials, and required technology infrastructure upgrades. States are also expected to spend as much as $801 million in years two through seven of the program.

Adds Pioneer Institute’s Executive Director Jim Stergios, “The nearly $16 billion in additional costs is nearly four times the federal government’s Race to the Top grant awards. With state and local taxpayers footing 90 percent of the bill for K-12 public education, the federal government’s push to get states to adopt national standards and tests amounts to one big unfunded mandate.”

And if all of this is not enough cause for concern, know, too, that more than 22 states, says FairTest, encountered technical issues during the online testing sessions, including Nevada, Montana, and North Dakota. Indeed, Nevada has already notified vendors that they were in breach of contract, and, said Clark County Superintendent Pat Skorkowsky, “Right now we have postponed the test until the vendor delivers a ‘cure,’” and going so far as to suggest that testing might not be completed this time around.

And just last week, the Minnesota Department of Education had to suspend testing for the second time this spring thanks to a cyber attack. Said Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius: “It is simply unacceptable and unfair to subject students and teachers to this kind of uncertainty in a high-stakes testing environment.”
Couple all these issues with yet one more biggie: SBAC won’t be announcing scores until sometime this summer, while PARCC won’t get them out until the fall. In both cases, it’s too late for teachers to diagnose and remediate their current students’ weaknesses—one of the tests’ advertised selling points.

As for how those scores are arrived at, countless full-time graders spend 8-hour shifts in various scoring centers around the country at $12 an hour. Their stated mission: “The right score, the right feedback, for every learner.”

And they don’t grade the whole test. As The Plain Dealer’s Patrick O’Donnell explains, “They work with just one question at a time, grading that single question a few hundred times a day. And each grader has been drilled several times in how students should answer that particular question before they start.”

Apparently, each student is assigned a number and then, Pearson, for instance, “pulls millions of exams apart, sorting the answers by question and sending them all to different scorers. In other words, says PARCC’s David Connerty-Marin, “Your kid’s test is getting split into parts and going to multiple places.”

So, there you go, and not all parents are cheering, namely those in what’s known as the opt-out movement. Says Anna Shah from Stop Common Core NYS: “While meaningful assessment is an essential component of children’s education, recent legislative changes tying excessive testing, flawed teacher evaluation plans, lack of funding and the flawed NYS Testing Program, among other things, have bastardized public education offered to students to the point where the quality and nature of instruction provided in schools and the environment in which students are expected to learn and teachers are expected to teach has been wholly compromised. Public education has been hijacked by corporate-minded interests at the expense of students. The tests no longer serve the point and purpose for which they were originally intended: to gauge education, help teachers teach and students learn.”

Another sticking point is that not only do corporations have easier access to “the educational marketplace” and private student and family data, the test questions are copyrighted. As a result, a company like Caveon Test Security is contracted with Pearson to monitor social media and websites “to protect the integrity of state assessments.”

The vendors’ concern is that kids will post some of the test questions, problems, etc. online. Indeed, they already have, mostly on Twitter but also on Facebook and Instagram. Apparently, it’s already happened at least 72 times across six states, and, says Assessment Solutions Group’s Barry Topol, “Posting test questions on the Internet is cheating, and it really impacts the validity of the tests.” That, of course, makes sense, but it nevertheless has the feel of Big Brother looking over the shoulders of our test-taking children.

The result: More pushback. For instance, the New York State United Teachers Union called upon parents to opt their children out of the Common Core assessments, and lots have done just that. It’s hard to tally the numbers definitively, but it’s estimated that statewide there were about 193,000 students who refused to take the English/language arts exam and some 150,000 who opted out of the math test.

That then begs the question: What did the opt-out kids do while everyone else was being tested? Reportedly, in some districts, the answer was nothing. That’s right; they did absolutely nothing under a “sit and stare” policy, causing parents to fight back so much that many schools now allow these children to visit the library, do worksheets, or read quietly. Still, some districts are sticking with their do-nothing policies.

Meanwhile, the No Child Left Behind law requires that 95% of a district’s student body participate in the testing sessions. Many, however, are unable to because of the opt-out movement. For instance, in Boulder, the district reported that 47% of its high schoolers, 14% of its middle schoolers, and 6% of its elementary students did not take the tests.

As a result, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Arne Duncan is threatening to withhold Title I funding to such districts; stay tuned.

Stay well-informed, too, because we’re all education stakeholders.