Ineffective assessments, part II: Where assessments stand today

 Click here to read all of the articles in our Ineffective Assessments series.

Assessments of K-12 students are state-developed and mandated at this point, but there is still plenty of federal oversight. While the federal government cannot tell a state what exactly to cover in an assessment, it can make certain subjects and benchmarks more attractive. Federal funding through programs like the Obama administration’s Race to the Top are tied to assessment scores in specific areas, like math or science learning. So the states that choose to include these federally-friendly standards do so with financial incentives in mind, at least partially. States are rewarded based on the students who achieve standards in areas that the federal government sees as priorities.

Having national standards is not exactly the problem. Incentivizing those standards is the problem. We all learn from a young age that every person is unique and that no two people are alike. Educators learn that students have different learning styles, and different strengths when it comes to those learning styles. A place like America, established on the principles of individual liberties and life goals, should be especially open-armed when it comes to nuances between the students in its public schools.

Yet assessments seem to take these basic ideals and throw them right out the window, blanketing all students with a set of standards to which they must adhere. Not only must students all be on the same page when it comes to this learning, but their teachers must treat them as one when it comes to the education process. Based on the ideology alone, standardized assessments are flawed. When they are then put into practice, their true weaknesses are revealed. How can all students be measured with the same yardstick – and how can punishments and rewards be handed out using such a scale?

The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 has long been criticized for its automation of student outcomes. NCLB has been simultaneously accused of setting impossible standards and “dumbing down” classrooms for the sake of the herd.  After over a decade of a life in the educational policy spotlight, though, NCLB may actually be losing its position center stage. Enter Common Core Standards. Perhaps no education policy and reform on a national scale has more effectively taken the attention away from NCLB as the recent implementation of Common Core Standards in over 40 states of the union. Though Common Core benchmarks were developed through a consortium of states, their perceived association with national politics is heightened.

The basics of Common Core standards are this: more critical thinking requirements, a higher emphasis on math and science proficiency and better career-readiness initiatives in all pursuits.

Officially, Common Core standards are:

  • Research and evidence based
  • Clear, understandable, and consistent
  • Aligned with college and career expectations
  • Based on rigorous content and the application of knowledge through higher-order thinking skills
  • Built upon the strengths and lessons of current state standards
  • Informed by other top-performing countries to prepare all students for success in our global economy and society

The way that these standards are assessed is, as predicted, through standardized testing. In the case of Common Core, it is through the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, or PARCC, testing. These results are used to determine progress and outline areas for improvement in K-12 schools. Basically every educational initiative should be examined and weighed based on its contribution to the future college and career goals of the student at hand. The lingering question then becomes: are learning experiences not directly related to college placement and career advancement irrelevant?

Teachers find themselves stuck in a no-win situation with Common Core and NCLB standards where they must reach certain benchmarks to receive recognition and funding, but they have to forsake learning in wider scopes to make it happen.

The standards-based Common Core approach to education reform has already been attacked for its disconnection with what kids should really know and what they are simply required to regurgitate for the sake of a test – sort of a déjà vu from the early days of NCLB. Parents who see their children struggling with the heightened intensity of the standards have taken to social media and blogs to complain, and conservative groups that believe states are overstepping their educational power have petitioned their governors to withdraw their states from the standards.

To be sure, there are a lot of misnomers floating around about Common Core standards, their origination and states’ roles in administering them. To understand what these standards and any future standards with a national push mean, we first have to know exactly what they are.

Contrary to what many may think, Common Core standards were not developed by the federal government, or any particular Presidential administration. Common Core standards are the creation of the Governor’s Association and were developed with input from many states before they were finalized. From there, states could decide whether to implement the standards or not – there was never a mandate to accept them. Nearly every state (40+) was on board to implement Common Core when they were first released, and for good reason. Some states has since lost that fervor, with Indiana being the first one to go back on its original decision and opt out of Common Core after just one year of its implementation. South Carolina quickly followed suit, and so did Oklahoma. The reasons behind these flip-flops were cloudy, at best. Officially the governors of these states said they decided to go with state-based standards instead that better addressed the needs of their specific student bodies. Unofficially, critics of the governors’ moves said they were simply political actions intended to gain favor with constituents who were anti-Common Core, and particularly those who felt that the standards were associated with President Obama (which they never were).

Regardless of why states decided against Common Core, either at the outset or after implementation, they remain in the majority of classrooms across the country. So what exactly ARE the Common Core benchmarks, and why are they viewed as being so groundbreaking and controversial?

In a nutshell, the Common Core standards put a stronger focus on areas where American students typically fall behind – think math, science and engineering pursuits. They set a higher bar for learning in these areas, along with language arts and critical thinking. And while the federal government played no implementation role, it did back the standards to the point of offering financial incentives for states that adopted them (Race to the Top is an example of this). By agreeing to the standards set forth by Common Core, states were in essence agreeing to the nationalization of learning benchmarks for the betterment of the K-12 student population as a whole.


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