Points to Ponder About the Common Core Standards

01/25/2011 04:01 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Todd Farley Author of Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry

If there's one thing the uber-confident if minimally-experienced education reformers can agree on, it's that this country's students need "high standards." The thought is that the high expectations of "high standards" in our schools will allow the United States to overcome any educational deficiencies we face (even the huge hurdle of our terrible teachers). This clamoring to raise the bar for our students is how we ended up with the revolutionary Common Core Standards, those academic benchmarks the reformers hope will lead us back to an educational promised land (also known as "Finland").

But are the Common Core Standards really "revolutionary"? Or are they fundamentally the same as the sets of standards that currently exist in each of the 50 states, different only in their wording? That is the question I recently set out to answer, when -- in an heroic act of corporate espionage that I undertook for you, dear readers -- I stealthily broke into the computer item bank of an assessment company I used to work for to look at their test questions and standards.

What did I find? Maybe I'm wrong, but I think I found the Common Core Standards look a lot like every other set of state standards I worked with over the years (that is, a list or grid of overblown educational rhetoric describing the simple skills American students should have mastered). For instance, the following multiple-choice question (written to a passage about feuding neighbors) is aligned to the Common Core Standards.

With which universal idea does this passage mostly deal?
A) the importance of overcoming grudges
B) the continued strength of the human spirit
C) the rebirth that happens each spring
D) the redemptive abilities of hard work

The specific Common Core Standard that item is aligned to identifies it as a "Literature" question focused on "Key Ideas and Details" that specifically can show whether or not a student is able to "Determine a theme or central idea of a text and analyze in detail its development over the course of the text, including how it emerges and is shaped and refined by specific details; provide an objective summary of the text."

Heady talk indeed, all those impressive words summarizing up that short, little question. In any case, that item is being sold as one aligned to the Common Core Standards, part of the new wave of new assessments that will shake this country's schools right to the foundation.

Or not, if you consider that same, exact question is also being sold for use on myriad other state tests. For instance, that question is also being marketed as one aligned to work with the Alabama standards ("Drawing conclusions from recreational reading texts"); the Arizona standards ("Analyze the author's use of literary elements/theme"); the California standards ("Compare works that express a universal theme..."); the Colorado standards ("Read a given text, identify the theme, and provide support from the text"); the Florida standards ("Identify and analyze universal themes and symbols across genres...and explain their significance"); the Georgia standards ("Applies knowledge of the concept that the theme or meaning of a selection represents a universal view..."); the Illinois standards ("Explain relationships between and among literary elements including character, plot, setting, theme, conflict and resolution and their effectiveness of the literary piece"), etc.

I have neither the time nor inclination to list here every set of state standards that that one test question aligns to, but suffice it to say there are many, many more, which I suggest you keep that in mind when next you hear talk of those "revolutionary" new Common Core Standards. Perhaps I'm failing to see their uniqueness as academic benchmarks only because I'm not fully qualified as an education reformer, but to me the Common Core Standards -- and the millions of questions the testing industry will gleefully (ca-ching!) write to address them -- look a whole lot like all those crappy questions and tests I've worked on for the last decade and a half.

I'm just saying.