The Common Core standards were the subject of a recent panel organized by the League of Women Voters of Connecticut, but the discussion quickly turned to high-stakes testing. “We’ve wed ourselves to a high-stakes testing model for well over a decade, and it’s shown to corrode education rather than improve it,” said Madison Superintendent of Schools Thomas Scarice.
Scarice was joined on the panel by Ray Rossomando, CEA research and policy development specialist; Stephen Armstrong, a curriculum specialist at the State Department of Education; Anne Magee Dichele, a professor of education at Quinnipiac University; and Nathan Quesnel, superintendent of East Hartford Public schools, and co-chair of the state’s Educators’ Common Core Implementation Task Force.
According to Dichele, there’s a problem facing students, parents, educators, and communities. The problem, she said, is that the Common Core standards “are enmeshed with high-stakes testing.” She said that the stress of testing led one third-grade class she visited to keep “stress boxes” full of stuffed animals, stress balls, and other stress-reducers on hand during a school testing period.
CEA’s Rossomando noted that the current situation could be changed. “Teachers could rewrite the Common Core Standards as Connecticut-specific,” said Rossomando, who further noted that the age-appropriateness of the new standards could also be addressed. Rossomando commented that rewriting the standards could be done, as has been done in some other states, and added “the question is: Would there be the political will to change things?”
Rossomando noted that CEA and AFT-Connecticut have polled Connecticut teachers and found that they, by and large, support new standards. However, polling also identified problems teachers experienced last year with implementation of the Common Core and indicated additional supports they need to effectively implement the new standards. Governor Dannel P. Malloy took a positive first step to address these issues last spring by funding recommendations made by the state’s Educators’ Common Core Implementation Task Force—a group the governor had convened.
Taking a look back over recent years when the Common Core standards were developed on the national stage, Rossomando identified the lack of real educator involvement in the creation of the new standards. Rossomando noted that “they came to us written in stone,” and added that Connecticut was already recognized as having high standards and high performance. “But they are the law of the land, and CEA members are working hard to implement the Common Core,” Rossomando said.
“Standards are great — we need to have high goals — who can argue with that?” said Dichele. She added that a deeper look needs to be taken into everything that comes with the standards.
Rossomando agreed that there were problems with the Smarter Balanced (SBAC) test administered to Connecticut students for the first time last spring, saying there are other options that we could consider for measuring student performance in Connecticut.
An audience member asked whether the Common Core was, in fact, a national curriculum. And while the superintendents on the panel agreed that they are free to develop their own local curricula, Scarice noted that the focus on SBAC testing does result in defining much of the curriculum.
The SBAC test was developed by a testing consortium that is separate from the Common Core State Standards, but inextricably linked to the standards themselves. Even though schools can use any curriculum they choose, due to the focus of SBAC, as well as time and resource limitations, many districts have decided to purchase curricula from global education publishers, which are also in the high-stakes testing business.
“Some people are making a load of money off this,” said Armstrong. “In an ideal world, each district would not have to buy a thing from publishers like Pearson and would be able develop their own curriculum.” However, Armstrong acknowledged that district capacity varies widely.
Dichele said that Pearson and others have turned the Common Core into a money-maker and are really defining curriculum for schools. “The intent of Common Core was for teachers to have autonomy to design curriculum that makes sense for the diverse group of students they serve,” she said.
“One of the biggest issues with the Common Core is the very different levels of resources towns have to implement the new standards,” said Rossomando. “There’s a risk that we could exacerbate the achievement gap without the necessary resources, time, and training that is necessary to get this right.”
Quesnel said that, as a member of an advisory group for the commissioner of education, one state initiative he’s been excited to see is a new concept for measuring schools. “The new factors would include standardized test scores, but also things like graduation rates, and even fitness tests. System success needs to be measured by multiple pieces,” he emphasized.
Rossomando said that, as a state, our goal for children’s learning shouldn’t be limited to simply being college and career ready. “That’s one aspect of what we want for kids, but ‘college and career ready’ is a very economically driven goal,” he said.
Rossomando noted the importance of civics, the arts, ensuring democratic participation, fostering creativity, and understanding moral dilemmas in literature. “There is much more that we expect of our schools,” Rossomando argued, including the need for “more creative measures of school and student performance.”
Quesnel said that Alliance District funding for East Hartford has enabled schools to hire more social workers and special education teachers, which helps to close the opportunity gap. “When you hear about the achievement gap, most of the time that’s code for results on a math and reading specific test,” he said.
“I think it’s absurd that we would even consider whether third-graders are on track to be college and career ready,” Scarice said. “I have a third-grader and he still believes in the Easter Bunny.”