THE BLOG
08/04/2014 06:56 pm ET Updated Oct 04, 2014

Civil Rights or Civil Wrongs: A Closer Look at the Common Core

The Washington Post via Getty Images

From the very beginnings of No Child Left Behind, the strongest argument for attaching stakes to standardized tests has been one of Civil Rights. This argument is shorthand for equity in education, an end to the systemic neglect of children of color. More recently, proponents of corporate education reform have become adept at wrapping themselves in these concerns, while promoting policies that have devastating effects on public school students and their communities. Common Core is no exception to this.

From Politico last week came word that Common Core proponents have realized that they are losing the battle.

"We're so good at all our statistics and data and rational arguments ... [but] emotion is what gets people feeling passionate," Oldham said. "It may not be the most comfortable place for the business community . [but] we need to get better at doing it."

This message seems to connect with Mike Petrilli of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, which has received Gates Foundation funding to evaluate the Common Core, as well as general operating grants. Politico again:

"We've been fighting emotion with talking points, and it doesn't work," said Mike Petrilli, executive vice president of the Fordham Institute, a leading supporter of the standards. "There's got to be a way to get more emotional with our arguments if we want to win this thing. That means we have a lot more work to do."

Step one: Get Americans angry about the current state of public education.

To that end, expect to start hearing from frustrated college students who ended up in remedial classes even though they passed all their state tests and earned good grades in high school. "These kids should be as mad as hell" that the system failed them, Petrilli said."

While we agree that students ought to mad as hell, we have different views of reasons why.

Let's stipulate that either side of this argument is capable of emotionally based arguments that sometimes stray from the facts. And let's try to look at the facts.

How will the Common Core standards and associated curriculum and tests affect the next generation of students? In particular, how will it affect those who have done poorly in the past on standardized tests, primarily African Americans, Latinos, English language learners, and special education students?

The primary argument coming from Petrilli seems to be that these students are now being poorly served because they are being allowed to graduate without having been adequately prepared for college. As evidence for this, we are being presented with the rates of students that require remediation. When Arne Duncan was in Massachusetts recently, he shared the following statistics: "Frankly Massachusetts is being out-competed by the majority of children in many other countries."

The secretary offered this sobering statistic to underscore his point: "Forty percent of your high-school graduates are taking remedial classes when they go to four-year universities. That's a staggering number ... Four in 10 of your high school graduates aren't ready for college."

Award-winning New York principal and author Carol Burris offered a slight correction to his numbers:

"Twenty-two percent of the students who attend four-year state universities in Massachusetts and 10 percent of the students who attend the University of Massachusetts take at least one remedial course. That group (students who attend four-year public colleges) comprises 28 percent of all high school graduates in the Commonwealth.

Thirty percent of all Massachusetts graduates attend private four-year colleges. Although I could not find remediation rates for such students, we know that nationally 15 percent of students who attend not-for-profit four-year colleges or universities take remedial courses.

Using the above, I estimate that the percentage of students in Massachusetts who attend four-year colleges and take remedial courses is roughly 17 percent, not the 40 percent that Duncan claimed."

Acknowledging that there are students in community college who should also be factored in, Burris continues:

"If we combine the three rates (public 4-year, private four-year and two-year public colleges), and include all of the non-traditional students who attend two-year colleges in the mix, the remediation rate is approximately 29 percent."

Burris further pointed to a national study conducted by the Department of Education which found the nationwide remediation rate to be only 20%. This same study shows that this 20% (for the year 2007-08) is actually a significant decline from the 26% of students that took such courses in the 1999-2000 school year.

So let's look at the solution that proponents of Common Core are pushing. They wish to put in place significantly more difficult tests, which far fewer students will pass. Recent reports of the process used to set cut scores revealed that the test designers were not only focused on what the teachers involved in the process thought students ought to know. Instead, they took into consideration how many students answered questions correctly...

"The process of setting a scoring "scale" and cut scores for an annual test, based on all-important, predetermined goals, is an entirely different animal that is not easily described. In fact, the panelists met to set the 1-4 cut scores after students took the first new tests in spring 2013 and the raw data was in.

"It's like you're jumping over a hurdle that's 2 feet high, but after you jump they say it was 3 feet and you missed," said Cary Grimm, another panelist who is math chairman for the Longwood school district on Long Island.

Tina Good, coordinator of the Writing Center at Suffolk County Community College, said her group produced the best possible cut scores for ELA tests in grades 3 to 6 - playing by the rules they were given.

"We worked within the paradigm Pearson gave us," she said. "It's not like we could go, 'This is what we think third-graders should know,' or, 'This will completely stress out our third graders.' Many of us had concerns about the pedagogy behind all of this, but we did reach a consensus about the cut scores."

Ignoring pedagogy (read: sound teaching practices), the Pearson-dictated focus was placed on the numbers, the cut scores, which had an immediate and apparent effect on the achievement gap.

As Carol Burris and one of us (Alan Aja) explained in the Washington Post analyzing the results of the 2013
tests:

"In 2012, prior to the Core's implementation, the state reported a 12-point black/white achievement gap between average third-grade English Language Arts scores, and a 14-point gap in eighth-grade English Language Arts (ELA) scores. A year later enter the Common Core-aligned tests: the respective gaps grew to 19 and 25 points respectively (for Latino students the eighth grade ELA gap grew from 3 to 22 points). The same expansion of the gap occurred in math as well.

...the percentage of black students who scored "Below Standard" in third-grade English Language Arts tests rose from 15.5 percent to a shocking 50 percent post-Common Core implementation. In seventh-grade math, black students labeled "Below Standard" jumped from 16.5 percent to a staggering 70 percent. Students with disabilities of all backgrounds saw their scores plummet- 75 percent of students with disabilities scored "Below Standard" on the Grade 5 ELA Common Core tests and 78 percent scored "Below Standard" on the 7th grade math test. Also, 84 percent of English Language learners score "Below Standard" on the ELA test while 78 percent scored the same on the 7th grade math exam.

When a student scores in the Below Standard category of 1, there is a good chance that her or his answers were mere guesses, or that the test was so difficult, they simply gave up. How do such tests help nine year olds who are struggling to learn English, or poor students starting school without the advantages of pre-school and the enriched experiences that affluence brings? How do we advance the cause of equity by giving them the message: You are "below standard" and not on the road to be ready for college?"

This same pattern, as I (Anthony Cody) discussed here, is evident in tests being used for granting GED certificates to students who did not graduate from a regular high school. In the state of Washington, this test is so difficult that the number of students earning GEDs has plummeted. And Carol Burris and John Murphy point out that New York state is on track to impose a similarly difficult high school exit exam on future students.

Thus we have proponents of civil rights bringing us a set of standards and tests that -- so far -- are having the effect of WIDENING the achievement gap, and putting GEDs and high school diplomas out of reach for many of our students. And their justification for this devastating reform is that otherwise students will need to take a remedial class in college?

Once again, we have a lazy, irresponsible approach to reform. Make the tests harder, and pretend you have done something to "bring students into the mainstream." But we are stuck in this mechanistic, punitive, test, punish and reward paradigm. Forget about the myriad challenges facing students due to poverty and wealth inequality; realities that disproportionately affect blacks and Latinos. Forget about addressing the funding inequities within the schools themselves. Forget about the reality of "stereotype threat," whereas students viewed by society as "cognitively inferior" (read: blacks/Latinos) are more likely to be come self-fulfilling prophecies, consciously or subconsciously under-performing on culturally-biased tests already pre-designed to set them up for failure. Forget about what William Darity, Jr., Darrick Hamiton and Alan Aja argued in the Huffington Post is the real curricular atrocity, which is a dual, segregated "ability grouped" curricula, whereas white children are more likely to be taught in an enriched, inter-disciplinary setting. Focus instead on setting a "higher bar" through more high stakes testing, and demand that everyone clear it.

Education is and always has been a civil rights issue. Children of color deserve far better than they are getting now. There is no halcyon era in the past when our schools were doing just dandy in this regard. But there was a time when we had a societal awareness that poverty was a pervasive and pernicious source of educational problems. There was a time when federal funds were not awarded based on competition between states, but on the needs of their students. There was a time when the Federal government promoted -- even mandated desegregation, rather than promoting semi-private charter schools that accelerate it.

Our challenge is not to go back to 1975, however. Our challenge is to learn from the successes and failures of the past five decades, and chart initiatives that address the opportunity gap, and build success, self determination and stability in our communities.

There are real reforms we could implement that would have an effect on achievement of African American and Latino students, and that of English learners and special education students. We could raise the level of funding in poor communities so it is equal to the spending in wealthy ones. We could provide reading specialists, like the ones that help children overcome dyslexia as early as the pre-K years. We could reduce class sizes, and restore librarians, both of which are associated with better outcomes for students. We could train teachers and schools to de-track segregated curricula through culturally-relevant pedagogies and practical non-test based universal enrichment models.

We could provide a focus on authentic projects, connected to the real world in which our students live.

These decisions ought to be made in local communities, with the direct involvement of students, parents and community leaders. What we need is adequate resources, and a shift away from top-down management via tests and standards. In this context, the corporate under-written Common Core standards and tests are at best, a distraction, and at worse, add grievous insult to injury.

This is a modified version of a piece originally posted in Living in Dialogue.