Writing on the Wall: The End of Common Core and High Stakes Standardized Assessments?

Sen. Mike Crapo

Sen. Mike Crapo

Recently, a coalition of senators in DC, including Idaho Sen. Crapo, sponsored legislation that would, in effect, render Arne Duncan’s tenure as Secretary as the U.S. Dept. Of Education null and void.

That’s because the bill proposed in the upper chamber would prohibit the federal government from tying federal dollars to a mandated set of standards or require Standardized Achievement Tests.

The Local Leadership in Education Act, as the legislation is officially titled, boldly declares its intention as:

To prohibit the Federal Government from mandating, incentivizing, or coercing States to adopt the Common Core State Standards or any other specific academic standards, instructional content, curricula, assessments, or programs of instruction.

Indeed, it appears Sen. Crapo might just be the champion such a cause desperately needs.

See, Secretary Duncan’s legacy has largely been built on exactly those two components.

Due to both his requirements to states in issuing No Child Left Behind waivers (a forgone required conclusion considering that all children must test proficient this year, an impossible bar to reach) as well as his hand in tying federal dollars under his discretion through the American Recovery Act only to states that adopt college and career ready standards (aka common core standards) as well as a common assessment (aka the SBAC or PARCC, the two consortia developing tests for Common Core) under his control in distribution of the Race to the Top grants.

In other words, if a state wants education dollars from the feds under the leadership of Sec. Duncan, those states better be prepared to adopt Common Core and embrace standardized testing as the single most important yardstick in student achievement.

Sec. Duncan even went so far last year as to tie special education funding to special educations students’ test scores. As I wrote then, that strikes me as being the square root of stupid considering that eligibility for special education services requires that a student’s disability has an adverse affect on his/her learning.

In other words, we know SpEd students are behind academically; if they weren’t, they wouldn’t be receiving special education instruction. What distorted sense does it make to withhold dollars when they don’t score proficient even though it is a forgone conclusion that most won’t?

Tying dollars to a standardized assessment for all students, but particularly for special education, English-language learners, and low socio-economic students, is a recipe for disaster; those very outside factors, factors beyond school’s control, are precisely an example of policy setting schools up for failure.

Indeed, even the data crunching emphasis of the Economic Policy Institute has noted that while a quality teacher is the single most important inside the classroom, nearly two-thirds of student achievement is applicable to factors outside the classroom, factors outside of a teacher’s control.

Says EPI:

Of course, schools should try to recruit better-quality teachers and should remove those who are ineffective. After all, the quality of teachers is an important part of the one-third share of the achievement gap that can be traced to the quality of schools. But before making teacher quality the focus of a national campaign, school systems will have to develop better ways of identifying good and bad teachers. Using students’ test scores as the chief marker of teacher quality is terribly dangerous, for a variety of reasons: it encourages a narrowing of the curriculum because only test scores in one or two subjects (math and reading) can be used for this purpose, and teachers who will be evaluated mainly by these test scores will have incentives to minimize attention to other subjects; it creates pressure to “teach to the test,” that is, emphasizing topics likely to appear on our existing low-quality standardized tests rather than other equally important but untested topics; and it is likely to misidentify teachers — labeling many good teachers as poor and many poor teachers as good — because test scores can be influenced by so many other factors besides good teaching.

And that truly is the third rail of American politics that nobody dares to tackle: a renewed “Great Society” emphasis on tackling poverty, child healthcare, stable housing, and other factors outside a school’s ability to control. To do so, while brave and confirmed in data, is political suicide.

That’s why this proposed legislation could have a tremendous impact on federal education policy: the almighty power of the dollar, power that was under the discretion of the executive in terms of allocation, would be stripped from the Secretary in terms of the tried and failed approach of standardized tests and national education standards.

Perhaps, then, those dollars could be used to tackle those two thirds of problems beyond a school’s control? What a bang for the buck! But, I digress…

Since No Child left Behind was enacted, we have witnessed the results of utilizing standardized tests as both carrot and stick.

A carrot through Secretary Duncan’s emphasizes of giving dollars to schools willing to embrace common core and high stakes testing. The result has been a disaster.  Using New York State as an example, that approach has resulted in only 30% of students being labeled as “proficient” (Idaho has not released any public data on score outcomes; this will be the first year it will be released after students test in spring).

Vice versa, the big stick approach of holding schools responsible for standardized test scores through withholding dollars and placing schools in Annual Yearly Progress (AYP Jail) has been equally flawed. Schools serving the hardest students, schools with a high percentage of special education, English-language learners, low socio-economic, and “at risk” students were the hardest hit by such a strategy.

In an outcome that surprised precisely zero individuals, those schools working with the hardest students had the lowest scores; an outcome that resulted in the feds withholding money from precisely the schools that desperately needed the most resources to help their students succeed.

Which is why Crapo’s bill, if it gains traction, could very well be a significant shift in the education pendulum at the federal level that has taken over a decade to budge.

And, for once, there is a very real possibility that the legislation could become a bipartisan success story that Pres. Obama desperately needs in a republican controlled legislature to show that he is still relevant.

In fact, progressive organizations including both the American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association, the two largest teacher unions, have passed resolutions calling for Duncan’s exit.

The NEA’s resolution, in fact, echoes Crapo’s proposed legislation addressing their concerns. Said the NEA in demanding Duncan’s resignation:

the Department’s failed education agenda focused on more high-stakes testing, grading and pitting public school students against each other based on test scores

There is very real support for a Democratic and Republican coalition to build around this bill with both progressive union constituents and tea party libertarian unify against federal overreach.

Yet, don’t expect this legislation to pass any time soon: such a departure in strategy would essentially require President Obama to request a letter of resignation from a Secretary he has ardently supported.

Also, keep in mind the missing component: Crapo’s bill doesn’t provide an alternative. While, perhaps, that’s good strategy that allows a larger group of supporters to back the legislation, it also largely leaves the Executive still largely free to determine allocation of federal education dollars, minus the standards and assessments.

What’s really going on here is more telling: this is an admission by the federal legislature that not only has NCLB been a disaster, but also an equal admission that the current legislature has no plans to rewrite or repeal the law.

Instead, there is an attempt in this bill to placate both progressive and libertarian constituents by removing the most controversial elements of the current policy: high stakes testing and education standard bribery.

And that’s sad…sad because if this legislation does indeed gain bipartisan traction it would be missed opportunity for the President to do something truly historic instead of this bandaid solution: A bipartisan alternative to the NCLB relic that would benefit students, parents, teachers, and…well the nation he leads.

That would require offering an alternative approach. It would require a national moment for pause and reflection of Education as a whole, not just within a public school’s classroom.

And that’s where this bipartisan coalition crumbles. The alternative approach would surely alienate any conservative supporters.

And while there is a very real and legitimate argument against the “Nanny State,” there is also a very real and legitimate argument that unless we truly address those areas outside of a school’s control, at the end of the day we have accomplished zilch in terms of higher educational outcomes for our children and students.

It would require an admission that the home is a critical component in a student’s learning. That means pumping dollars into assuring children have a stable, safe, and healthy living environment.

It acknowledges that learning starts long before a student enters kindergarten, and that if a single parent is working 2+ jobs to keep the roof over their head, there is little time for that parent to engage in important activities that prepare that child for the classroom like reading. Thus, pre-k might need to be included in the conversation.

It means acknowledging that food insecurity is a real and persistent problem. And while there may very well be issues with government funded food programs, in the end it makes no difference for Johnny who leaves school on Friday knowing he won’t eat again until breakfast at school on Monday.

It requires an acknowledgement that healthcare for children indeed plays a role in a student’s learning. When an untreated cavity decays for years, it’s no wonder that Johnny struggles to pay attention to meiosis vs. mitosis instead of the pain in his mouth.

It mandates that the extreme polarization and hyperbolic rhetoric in both parties on social issue spending is set aside, if even just for the sake as actually engaging in a conversation on policy that improves student achievement outside the classroom.

Because we know that these sensible approaches are good for our children and students. We know that when students don’t constantly think about where their next meal will come from, when they don’t ponder as to where they will be sleeping that night, and don’t worry about causing their parents bankruptcy because they need to visit the doctor that there are positive outcomes in their learning.

Because we know that the alternative carrot/stick approach to tying money to standards and high stakes testing has been such a dismal failure. A decade after it’s inception, No Child Left Behind has been such a colossal disaster that the fact we are issuing waivers to exempt states from the mandates is telling of just how big a success NCLB has been.

Because doing nothing isn’t an option, at least not outside of Washington. There truly is a need for federal policy to address persistent and systematic problems impacting student learning, and we truly have the tools to do something about it.

So, yes, hats off to Sen. Crapo for starting this conversation. But, no, while this legislation certainly is an improvement over the status quo, it is not a solution. Rather, it may signal the beginning of a truly revolutionary change in education policy that our students desperately deserve.

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