Common Core student testing a battleground issue

Posted at 11:32 AM, Mar 23, 2015
and last updated 2015-03-29 17:49:42-04

Common Core State Standards began as a state-initiated effort to build consistent K-12 standards throughout the country.

Though Common Core started as a bipartisan effort, the standards have evolved into a battleground issue for a sizable portion of the country and could even become an issue in the 2016 presidential election.

Concerns ranging from the power of school districts to make independent choices to the quality of the standards have created firestorms in some jurisdictions.

Some states that originally adopted Common Core standards have lost their appetite for the new rules and either voted to make modifications or left the standards altogether.

States are in varying phases of the process with many implementing tests for the standards this school year. Here is some help in figuring out what you need to know.

What is Common Core?
In 2007 and 2008, governors and education leaders in states worked to create a more unified set of standards.

“They came together and said, ‘We have a problem that we all can work on together,’” said Carrie Heath Phillips, the program director for the Common Core State Standards at the Council of Chief State School Officers.

The group designed a set of standards to prepare students for college and show what students of varying ages should be able to do. The standards are designed to cover fewer topics but in a deeper way. The standards are designed for English and math.

States who have adopted the standards have different target dates for fully implementing Common Core standards.

Why is Common Core controversial?
The controversy seemed to begin when the Department of Education under President Barack Obama awarded federal grants to some, but not all states.

Applicants had to have Common Core standards or an equal set of standards to get the money.

The action came as Americans were sharply divided about the Affordable Care Act — a federal initiative that forced states into some measure of compliance. The measure divided the nation along partisan lines.

Those lines have largely, though not totally, chosen the same sides on Common Core according to Gallup, with Republicans more likely to be against Common Core and Democrats more likely to be supportive of the new standards.

Common Core, however, is not a federal initiative.

“While there were some federal incentives put in place for the states to adopt these standards, the federal government had nothing to do with writing the standards and certainly, the federal government wasn’t there at its creation,” said Mike Petrilli, the president of the conservative education policy think tank Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Comments by high-level officials have not helped. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, for example, told a group of state superintendents that some of the opposition has come from “white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — their child isn’t as brilliant as they thought they were, and their school isn’t quite as good as they thought they were.” 

Duncan backtracked from the statements, but the impact was felt.

Common Core has become so controversial that Indiana, South Carolina and Oklahoma have dropped out while others are considering state legislation to do the same or significantly alter the state’s initial plans.

Still, others have rallied behind Common Core and promoted the goal of the standards.

Petrilli said those states who have opted out of Common Core have had trouble coming up with a better set of standards.

“Two of those three states have replaced (Common Core standards) with something else,” he said. “In both of those cases, the opponents of Common Core are not happy because they feel like the new standards are too much like the Common Core standards.”

Is anything else controversial?
Yes, there are a number of other issues that have drawn criticisms from Common Core opponents.

The implementation of the standards had problems in some states. For better or worse, Common Core standards are different than previous standards, and so there is a challenge to integrate the standards into school systems.

“The National Education Association has been very supportive of the standards and very, very worried about how those standards are being implemented,” National Education Association President Lily Eskelsen Garcia said.

The union represents 3 million members.

Eskelsen Garcia said one of the problems with the implementation has been when some states pushed tests before teachers and schools even had a grasp of the standards.

“A lot of times people will blame the Common Core itself when if you really get into it, you’ll find it wasn’t the standards,” she said. “It was the way it was implemented.”

So what about the tests?
Common Core itself does not have a test. But No Child Left Behind, which is a federal law, requires states to have some sort of assessment test.

Eskelsen Garcia said tests detract from the goals. She said grade-point average, which comes from individual teachers is a better way to assess whether a student is doing well and ready for college.

“If you did it right, if you didn’t have the high-stakes test, if you didn’t have people fearing punishment, you would have folks as parents and teachers actually looking at those standards and thinking, ‘What’s the best way to teach this?” she said.

But not everyone has issues with testing.

“While it’s imperfect, one of the best ways we have to measure the performance of our schools is through those standardized tests,” Petrilli said. “They don’t measure everything, but if you don’t use tests then the other stuff you’re going to look at is all going to have problems too.”

Does everyone take the same test?
States who have adopted Common Core standards plan to take all sorts of different tests.

The majority have either signed on to take either the Partnership for Assessment Readiness for College and Careers, commonly known as PARCC, or the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC). But other states have designed their own tests.

What is the difference among the tests?
The two main tests — PARCC and SBAC — have a few key differences.

SBAC is an adaptive test, so questions change depending on how well a student is doing on the test. PARCC, meanwhile, is a fixed test where questions are pre-determined before the test no matter how well a student is doing on the test.

Both include assessments at various points to see how students are doing in targeted areas, and students would take both tests on computers.

What do the tests mean?
In states such as Ohio, students will not face repercussions for opting out of the Common Core tests.

But schools could face federal penalties if too many of their students do not take the tests. According to No Child Left Behind, at least 95 percent of students in a district must take English and math tests or else the district could be penalized.

Some states have been less clear about consequences for students who opt out of tests.

Petrilli said he hopes students take the test.

“By opting out, it creates all kinds of problems in getting that kind of information,” he said. “If too many kids opt out, the information we get about our schools is no longer valid. And that can hide the underperformance of school.

“There could be a lot of games being played around the tests, and that’s not good for kids.”

What do teachers think?
Different states place different levels of importance on the tests.

At least some teacher unions are concerned. The New Jersey Education Association had a six-week ad that showed parents upset about PARCC testing.

But Eskelsen Garcia said she has talked with teachers who love the Common Core standards, though different states and school districts have had differing levels of latitude when it comes to letting teachers develop curriculum. Neither curriculum nor tests are developed by Common Core.

Does everyone like the standards?
Though the standards take less heat in some circles, there are people who are adamantly opposed to the standards.

Sandra Stotsky was a member of the Common Core Validation Committee in 2009-10. She voted against the validating the standards.

Stotsky said the new standards for English, language arts and reading do not include enough fiction and poetry. The Common Core standards focus more on non-fiction reading.

“If you are using a science textbook, or a history (book) or a math textbook, they are designed to convey information,” said Stotsky, a University of Arkansas professor of education reform emerita. “They aren’t designed to get you to analyze between the lines of a science textbook. They want you to understand the information they’re conveying.”

Stotsky pointed to comments of James Milgram, a Stanford professor and mathematician, who also served on the validation committee and also voted against the standards.

Milgram has said the math standards for Common Core do not prepare students for majors in science and math in college.

Milgram could not be reached for comment.

Stotsky said the validation committee needed more college experts in mathematics, science and English to make sure students would be ready for college.

Petrilli and Eskelsen Garcia separately said they like most of the standards.

“Our view is that these standards are very good,” Petrilli said. “They’re not perfect, but we think that they are clearly superior to what three quarters of the states had in place before and on par with the rest. We think that they are much clearer, more teachable, more rigorous than what most states had.

“We have our quibbles with both math and English, but on the whole, these are quite strong, and we think if schools faithfully implement them, they will raise the performance of American kids.”

Eric Pfahler is a national content producer on the Scripps National Desk and may be emailed at