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Vicki Cobb Headshot

The Fly in the Common Core Ointment

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The recent release of the NY State assessment scores, based on the about-to-be-implemented Common Core State Standards for education, has created quite a stir, to put it mildly. As predicted, the scores were poorer than in previous years because of the new standards. Statewide, 31 percent of students passed the exams in reading and math. Last year, 55 percent passed in reading, and 65 percent in math.

The Common Core State Standards become law in 47 states by 2014. Dr. John King, Commissioner of Education for the State of New York, has already started to execute them and to sell them to the public. He explains that the CCSS came out of a governors' meeting several years ago. Governors want to attract businesses to their states. Before relocating, businesses want to know about the quality of each state's labor pool. The question for each governor was: What can your state's workers be trained to do? This generated a conversation about the skill sets needed by businesses and how well each state was doing in producing capable workers. The standards and measures for the different states were all over the waterfront. Rather than compete with each other, the governors agreed to work together to establish common standards for college and career readiness. And so the Common Core State Standards came to be. John King said: "The organization of CEOs for Cities did a study that showed if you added a single percentage rate for college achievement in NY you would add $17.5 billion of economic activity." Hmmm... there's nothing wrong with that.

Diane Ravitch, educational historian and activist on behalf of public education, blogs five or six times a day to spotlight how the CCSS are wreaking havoc on already beleaguered public school systems across the country. It made news when she came out against the Common Core State Standards. It is not possible to find two more well-intentioned, passionate advocates for effective education than these two. But they are in opposite camps.

As a children's nonfiction author, I welcome the Common Core State Standards. If you read them, you will see that they are quite benign. There is nothing in there about curriculum, what books are to be read, just a shift to reading a lot more complex text about the real world. I see it as an opening for us authors. That's why I was startled when I heard vitriolic hatred of the CCSS from a veteran teacher of 35 years. When I asked if he had read them, he allowed that he had not.

Like many teachers, this teacher was unaware of the difference between high-quality nonfiction literature and what many educators think of as nonfiction for kids -- the flat, boring, uninspiring writing that is in textbooks. They are used to the prepackaged texts, teachers' guides, study questions and tests that they use to "cover" the curriculum topics. They don't know how inspiring, engaging nonfiction literature brings a love of learning to content. And since the CCSS says nothing about curriculum, implementing the standards means that educators are now free to insert wonderful books -- of which there is a huge selection -- into their science, social studies, history, math, art, music, and physical education classes. Teachers can continue to teach their favorite fictional literature but now the door is open to using nonfiction literature across the curriculum. So, to the teacher who told me that she didn't like the arbitrary quota that 50 percent of all reading in elementary school must be nonfiction, I say that when you add high-quality reading across all disciplines, even if you keep all the fiction you like in ELA, the quota are more than met. It just means that kids will have to read a lot more across the board. Nothing wrong with that either.

The fly in the ointment is the testing. More particularly the high-stakes placed on the tests and the absurd notion that a teacher's value-added comes from the way his/her students perform on the assessment tests. There is nothing new about testing. We've always tested. When I was a teacher almost 50 years ago my students took tests. There were three possible outcomes:

1. The student test performance was about the same as their performance in my class.
2. The student performed poorly on the test but well in my class
3. The student performed well on the test but poorly in my class.

As a teacher, the only result I paid attention to was No. 3. If the student aced the test but was doing sub-standard work in my class, I knew there was something for me to correct.

When I taught, back in those days, I had autonomy to teach creatively. I didn't use the textbook but found other more interesting science reading material for my students on curriculum content. I worked to make sure that they understood the basics and gave them all kinds of fun details to make the basics memorable. We spent a less than a week practicing test questions just before they took the tests. They did just fine.

I agree with Diane Ravitch's criticism of the testing. Schools lose almost two months of instruction between the time spent on test prep and the tests themselves. The new tests, based on the CCSS, have produced dismal failure. So what! Let's use the CCSS as license to teach the best way we know how. Give the tests with minimal test prep, use the data internally along with other measures of school effectiveness, and let the chips fall where they may. And, at least for the next few years, sever the connection between test results and real estate values. The latest news is that the test-makers recognize their failure and the tests results won't count this year.

As a scientist, when I didn't get the results from an experiment that I expected or wanted, I figured that the problem lay in my experimental design, not in the natural phenomenon I was exploring. (Nature doesn't lie!) The test makers need to find other ways of measuring student achievement rather than a single yearly snapshot where teachers are given instructions on how to handle test booklets that have vomit on them so that the results can be tabulated. And the educational community and the public need to stop giving the test outcomes so much power.