The Problem With Linking Common Core Standards With High Stakes Testing

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Arizona's high stakes testing opt out bill, HB2246, made it through two committees. Republicans in the committees voted for it while Democrats either voted No or were absent during the vote. I understand the Democrats' concern, since killing Common Core is a cause célèbre for the far right, and one of their strategies is to throw a monkey wrench in the works by attacking the tests. But testing and Common Core aren't the same thing. The merits of the Common Core are worth debating. Lots of teachers using the Common Core standards like them, including people whose opinions I respect, while others are less happy with what they've seen. But the yearly high stakes tests, which have been around since No Child Left Behind was signed into law in 2002, are a destructive force in our children's educations, more destructive than any good that might come from the new standards. Allowing parents to express their concerns about the tests by opting out is an important first step toward replacing the yearly tests with something that will help, not harm our children and our educational system.


The standards have had scarce little field testing to this point. They should be considered a work in progress, not a set of mandates written in stone. As classroom teachers implement them, the teachers as well as administrators and educational researchers need the flexibility to change and improve the standards based on how well they serve students with different needs and at different achievement levels.

But so long as the standards are shackled to the yearly high stakes tests whose results can have a profound effect on students, teachers, administrators—even entire school districts—no one dares to modify the standards at the local level for fear of the consequences.

An article in Education Week, Common Core Seen Falling Short in High School Math, notes that people analyzing and using the K-8 math standards are generally pleased with them, but the high school standards are subject to far more controversy. Some people say the high school standards need to take students deeper into fewer math concepts. Others are worried that there's too much material to cover. Most people in both camps agree the high school standards weren't well thought out, to the point where one geometry standard was left out completely due to carelessness. They were rushed out as an afterthought once the K-8 standards were finished.

It looks like the high school math standards should be worked on sooner rather than later, but because of the high stakes tests, teachers are forced to teach them by the book—or more accurately, by the test. Unfortunately, whether the standards make sense or not is secondary. It's all about the students' scores.

Problems with the high school math standards are more obvious than other weak spots in the standards, but inevitably more problems will surface across grade levels in math, reading and writing. Because of the testing, very little change and experimentation will be happening at the local level. Improvement will be a laborious, top-down process. The Common Core masters will have to rework the standards, then rewrite the tests before anyone at the classroom level dares implement any important changes.

While hatred of the Common Core is strongest on the right, concern over high stakes testing should be considered as a separate, nonpartisan issue. Democratic legislators need to understand that.

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