The 2014–2015 school year marks the first year of spring testing since the implementation of Common Core State Standards in California public schools. The official adoption of the new state standards took place on August 2, 2010, but full curriculum implementation did not happen until this year, making it the first time California will be able to see tangible results of the education efforts with test scores reflecting the material covered in the Common Core.
Common Core is essentially the culmination of work done by two nationwide groups, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, which were tasked with evaluating why American students were falling behind on global education benchmarks as well as college- and career-readiness. Researchers found that teachers were racing through textbooks and checking off boxes without pausing to gauge the intellectual growth of their students, so Common Core aims to correct that by requiring fewer topics but allowing students to think more deeply.
Additionally, it aims to make the teacher less of an authority figure in the classroom, forcing students to spend more time figuring things out themselves, according to the official website of the Common Core State Standards Initiative.
The Obama administration has encouraged states to adopt Common Core standards through the federal grant program known as Race to the Top, and most have, but each state is free to develop its own tests.
Forty-three states, according to Frank Kwan, communications director at the Los Angeles County Office of Education, have adopted the Common Core State Standards as of 2015. However, just one year ago, 45 states had adopted the standards and support seems to be rapidly dropping.
According to the Common Core State Standards Initiative, the curriculum standards are informed by the best state standards already in existence, the experience of teachers, content experts, states and leading thinkers, as well as feedback from the public.
While the standards set grade-specific goals, they do not define how the standards should be taught or which materials should be used to support students. Individual schools and teachers are free to teach the standards in whatever way they see fit, providing that the goals are ultimately met.
While many are accepting of the standards as a means to regulate education, others are frustrated, expressing that each student’s learning ability is different, and that standardized education inhibits potential.
A 2014 PDK/Gallup survey showed that 68 percent of public school parents said they do not believe standardized tests are helpful to teachers. Parents were more supportive, though, of the idea of using tests to make decisions about grade-level promotions, graduation requirements and whether to award college credit.
Peggy Robertson, co-founder of United Opt Out National, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending corporate education reform, created a Facebook page in the hopes of gaining traction among parents who supported the movement to opt out of state testing. Within 48 hours, the page went viral.
“Our goal, basically, is just to make it really clear that these tests are worthless,” Robertson said. “They’re culturally biased, they promote narrow learning, they promote test prep and we need to flip this and help [the government] see that we’re demanding authentic learning, authentic assessment and that children be protected.”
As a teacher for 17 years within multiple school districts, Robertson has seen “all of it” – positive and negative ways to teach children. She stresses the fact that the Common Core-based tests are stress inducing and high stakes.
“When you test children in a fear-based environment, you can’t even assume that those results are in any way accurate,” Robertson said.
With such a high-stakes test, Robertson notes that it becomes very clear to the children that these test results could cause a teacher to be fired, they could cause a student to be held back and that their school could be shut down if performance levels drop.
So, what is the solution?
“The things that actually do work that are research-based such as librarians, libraries, counselors, health care,” Robertson said. “If we had services like these funded fully at all schools, then scores would go up. It’s very simple.”
However, with the movement toward opting out of these tests on the rise, resistance could be costly. According to Kwan, if fewer than 95 percent of a district’s students participate in tests aligned with Common Core standards, federal money could be withheld.
“We haven’t seen this happen yet, but with so many people frustrated and wanting to get behind a movement like this, it is bound to happen somewhere,” Kwan said.
In California, home to the nation’s largest public school system and Democratic political leaders who strongly endorse Common Core standards, there have been no reports of widespread protests to the exams — perhaps because state officials have decided not to hold schools accountable for the first year’s results.
Another point of concern in the Common Core initiative is found in the integration of special education.
The standards read, “States and districts recognize that there will need to be a range of supports in place to ensure that all students, including those with special needs and English language learners, can master the standards. It is up to the states to define the full range of supports appropriate for these students.”
The initiative requires that students with disabilities be held to the same standards as general education students. This means that special education students are required a different level of teacher instruction that can effectively communicate the Common Core lessons and help them reach the required goals.
For some, this seems like a positive outcome. For others, like Heather Avis, mother of 7-year-old Macy who has Down’s Syndrome, this is a flaw in the system.
Avis advocates for special education integration in public schools, emphasizing that her daughter is fully capable thriving in a learning environment that “typical” kids would thrive in.
“My dream is for my daughter to be able to make friends with the typical kids, to go on the same field trips as them, to eat at the same lunch tables as them,” Avis said. “With Common Core requiring Macy to be held to such high standards – unreasonable for even typical kids – she is essentially forced into a special education classroom because she has to be taught the same information differently.”
According to the document provided by the Common Core Standards Initiative, “Application to Students with Disabilities,” their instruction “must incorporate supports and accommodations” such as “teachers and specialized instructional support personnel who are prepared and qualified to deliver high-quality, evidence-based, individualized instruction and support services.”
Of course, Avis wants Macy to learn to the fullest capacity she can, but upholding special education students to the same standards as general education students may ultimately lead to even more division between the two.
“Her teacher and I talked about how much we both believe in inclusion, but this teacher’s hands are tied, there really isn’t much she can do without the cooperation from the administration and Gen. Ed. staff,” Avis said.
Because of the fact that Macy’s teachers must standardize learning throughout the classroom, there is no room for Macy to receive assisted learning without moving her back to a special education classroom.
According to an article by Nirvi Shah for Education Week, special educations students may require 30 to 40 more days of instruction to learn the same material.
Like Avis, many parents argue that holding their special education children to these standards is unrealistic and unfair. Avis hopes to change the outcome of this story, and she is currently in the process of writing a letter to be used as a resource that other parents can bring to their school administrators asking for inclusion.
“It will just be letting them know that they believe inclusion is best for their child in general education and that they are standing and fighting this fight with the parents who have been fighting it for years. It will be a simple yet powerful way for us to do the little we can to make a big change for kids everywhere.”
Advocates like Robertson and Avis understand that education reform is a slow and grueling process with loud voices on each side.
At the end of the day, they, like those who may oppose their opinions, are simply hoping to see students, children and our country’s future leaders receive the best possible education they can.
“I don’t know the solution, but I know that if things are going to change then people need to start caring a little bit more,” Avis said.