A new set of content standards is shaking up California’s schools. Though recognized for having excellent, albeit dramatically underfunded and therefore incompletely implemented, standards across all subject matters
, California has finally bowed to tremendous policy and financial pressures and joined about 45 other states in adopting the pseudo-national standards called the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)
. As part of adopting CCSS, California has also joined the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC)
, one of two national groupings (the other one is PARCC
) available to states for coordinating the development of assessments for CCSS.
In many ways, CCSS is a reaction to the disaster of No Child Left Behind and its exclusive focus on standardized testing. Failing to get new federal education policy passed, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has instead taken a new tack by fostering the creation of new federally blessed curriculum standards and associated tests that states can choose to adopt. But the educational logic behind CCSS is quite weak—are we really supposed to believe that the biggest problem facing our schools has been an across-the-board lack of rigorous standards and associated testing materials? Any evidence clearly indicating this need and this specific solution is lacking
. In fact, much about the CCSS is troubling, including the fact that the CCSS has been developed and promoted in an unnerving partnership between the Department of Education and private interests, particularly the Gates Foundation
. In true privatization fashion, the process has been less than transparent
and has specifically not drawn on parents
And yet, here we are, now facing the process of a massive transition from one complex structure to another. Like other districts in California, this year students in the San Francisco Unified School District (SFUSD)
will soon be exposed to these standards, though the full implementation in our district is not scheduled until next year. According to the California Department of Education page on the phased implementation
, the math standards will be available in November and the ELA standards will be ready in May. So the actual standards are not actually ready for prime time and this is just the beginning of the challenges CCSS faces in our state and across the country. As this FAQ
from the California Department of Education makes all too painfully clear, educational materials aligned to the new standards are still in development and are unevenly available to teachers across the state. Publishers are being invited to provide what are essentially draft materials to help bridge the period between the old standards and the new, meaning that both teachers and our kids are serving as free testers for these private companies who will be making a tremendous amount of money developing and selling textbooks, work books, testing systems and more to the entire country.
In the case of California, given that our standards were more than fine this is an unconscionable waste of resources. Our state standards were actually considered by many to be superior
to CCSS, and in fact so good that in the words of the Fordham Institute describing the mathematics section “California’s standards could well serve as a model for internationally competitive national standards.” Such high praise clearly begs the question “Why switch?” The answer of course is the need for federal education dollars, which Secretary Duncan has made clear are being more and more strictly tied to the adoption of CCSS.
Some have argued that while California’s standards are (or rather, were) fabulous, they never came close to being sufficiently implemented because there were no dollars backing them, so we only had the illusion of a solid academic program for our kids, not the real thing. Adoption of CCSS, by contrast, implied associated resources to actually get students to those standards. Such backward logic results in no financial savings and only produces unproductive churn for the students and educators forced to live and learn through the transition. Resources are being allocated to the vast implementation needs of CCSS that instead could have gone into reducing teacher-student ratios, increasing professional development for critical issues such as cultural proficiency for educators and administrators, expanding course offerings and ensuring the availability of libraries and extracurricular options at all schools.
Instead we’re spending our very precious educational dollars swapping out one set of content guidelines for another and writing checks to all of the educational mercenaries who will be doggedly diving in to retrain teachers and sell school districts all of the CCSS related goodies necessary to comply with state and federal policies. Indeed, Governor Brown and state legislators approved a tremendous increase in education funding this year specifically targeted to the CCSS transition. Rubbing salt in our wounds, not only are we spending unnecessary resources implementing CCSS, but we still need those “old” standards, since unlike our current content guidelines that spanned all subjects from science
to physical education
, CCSS currently only covers English Language Arts (ELA) and math.
All of which is not to say that national standards aren’t a good idea in principle. Although vociferous debates
about this concept can be fired off at any point on the political spectrum, the state-by-state approach to education we’ve had so far feels somewhat lacking. Common sense and our shared dependence speaks to the need for some basics that ought to be well-covered for all students regardless of the state a child happens to be born in or moves to. The idea that scientific concepts, writing skills or the third-rail skill called “critical thinking” could be variably taught or skipped entirely due to an accident of geography is disconcerting.
But however one feels about national standards, CCSS is here to stay for at least awhile and like almost everything else coming out of the Department of Education in these last two administrations, it is a set of poorly thought out experiments masquerading as well-researched strategies. No testing or research has been done to show that these standards are more effective than any others, and as everyone openly acknowledges the assessments being designed and the uniform computer-based approach
to those assessments are unknown quantities. The two assessment consortiums are furiously developing instruments that will be “field tested” in the coming year or two, and have made samples available. A quick look at the samples
from SBAC in both English Language Arts and Mathematics is not that encouraging. The user interface for the test itself is somewhat distracting and buggy and the content, especially in the math, is confusing. Clearly a tremendous amount of work has yet to be done in creating solid computer systems for the testing, in addition to creating solid material behind those systems.
Luckily for California’s students, Governor Brown, our legislators in Sacramento, the State Superintendent of Public Instruction and the State Board of Education recognize just how far off those assessments are and have stepped in to prevent our kids from having to take multiple, meaningless tests. In one of the few reasonable education policies to come around for quite some time, Governor Brown and state education leaders are supporting AB 484
, introduced by Assembly Member Bonilla and co-authored by Senator Steinberg. This bill puts an official pause button on standardized testing in California during this interim period where the curriculum being used across school districts is changing and there are no available, reliable assessment tools of any sort. As is so well stated in a recent piece on EdSource
, the tests currently available aren’t aligned with what is being taught in classrooms while CCSS is being introduced, nor are the tests in development for CCSS ready for actual use. The result is that there are no valid ways to begin to conduct standardized testing, even if one wanted to.
Should Governor Brown sign AB 484 as expected, Secretary of Education Duncan has predictably threatened to withhold our Title I funding (totaling about 1.5 billion dollars
) or at least impose a fine. This would be the height of ironic hubris, since Duncan has already backed the need to wait to implement CCSS tests since they aren’t ready, but he’s insisting on a certain level of testing
regardless. So the message Duncan is sending is that kids need to take standardized test even when they are completely invalid. Nothing could express one of the fundamental flaws of our current educational system more clearly than this type of twisted thinking.
Lisa Schiff is the parent of two children in the San Francisco Unified School District and is a member of Parents for Public Schools of San Francisco.