In response to my recent blogs on Huffington Post that were critical of Common Core, some commentators have defended Common Core and said that people who don’t like high-stakes tests are making people wrongly think that national standards are bad. But if you look at how national standards came to be, you can see that Common Core is all about testing.
On January 8, 2002, at Ohio’s Hamilton High School, President George W. Bush signed the “No Child Left Behind” (NCLB) Education Bill. Bush gave a speech at the signing ceremony that explained how Common Core would work. He also made it clear how his goals for education in the U.S. fit in with the idea of testing students all the time. The president said that “accountability” was the “first principle” of NCLB, and he said that accountability meant testing. “In exchange for federal money, NCLB required states to make accountability systems that show parents and teachers if children in grades three through eight can read, write, add, and subtract.”
The president then told the students in the crowd that this meant that they would be tested. “First, you have to figure out what the problem is. So, what this bill says is that all children can learn. We want to find out about a child’s learning problem as soon as possible, before it’s too late. I understand taking tests aren’t fun. Too bad. In America, we need to know. We need to know if children have learned the basics or not.”
Seven years later, as he was getting ready to leave office, President Bush said the same thing at the General Philip Kearny School in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, about education, NCLB, and high-stakes testing.
Bush said to the crowd, “Today marks 7 years since I had the honour of signing a bill that changed the way schools work in the U.S. for good. The name of the law was “No Child Left Behind.” I’m sure that because of this law, more students are learning and the gap between them and other students is closing. And I’m here to talk about why we need to keep the law strong on this special day.”
For President Bush, or at least for his allies and speechwriters, the key to getting people to have higher expectations was still to test them more. “If you don’t test, how can you tell if a child can read at their grade level? And uh-uh to those who say we teach to the test. We teach a child how to read so that he or she can do well on the test. Measurement is a key part of being successful. Measurement is the key to real change, and it’s also the best way to make sure that parents are involved.”
The problem with NCLB is that it was a law that wasn’t well thought out. I’m always wary of a bill that has a lot of support from both sides, especially in this age of partisan gridlock. NCLB was approved by the Senate 91-8 and the House of Representatives 384-45. Most of the time, this means that the law is just for show or is so harmless that no one expects it to have much of an effect. In this case, NCLB was passed in 2002, but it wasn’t supposed to go into full effect until 2014. This meant that politicians could take credit for pushing for educational reform, but there was plenty of time for the public to forget who was responsible for a bad law or for a new administration and Congress to change it if it was needed.
The goals of NCLB’s requirements may have been good, but they can’t be met. States are required to come up with measurable goals that EVERY student, including EVERY child from a low-income family, EVERY student with a physical, mental, or emotional disability, and EVERY English language learner, must meet. By the 2013-2014 school year, EVERY student in EVERY school in the state had to reach the proficiency level. If they didn’t, the state, districts, and schools would be breaking the law. States that didn’t follow the rules had to pay fines. States were also told they had to make the tests that would show they were meeting their measurable goals. This gave them a way out. If the goals were low and the tests were easy, they might get close to meeting EVERY requirement (notice how I repeat and capitalise EVERY).
Common Core was created when states tried to lower their standards to avoid the consequences of NCLB. Its supporters said that if tests were to have any meaning, they needed to be based on a national standard and be the same for everyone. Since you couldn’t have content standards or tests because no one agreed on what should be taught, education and testing in the United States would only focus on reading and math skills. Forget everything else.
Joy Resmovits breaks down the history of Common Core in a great article for Huffington Post. In 2006, a new group of people from both parties got together to make Common Core. It was paid for by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and backed by publishers who saw how much money they could make from the new standards by selling textbooks, study guides, and high-stakes tests. Gates, among other things, got the Pearson for-profit educational publishing company to run a non-profit foundation that supports Common Core. Common Core was made by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, so supporters thought they could say it was a state-led initiative and not the work of the federal government or the publishing industry. Representatives from the testing company College Board and a group called ACT, which also makes and markets high-stakes tests, were on the advisory board. Mercedes Schneider carefully followed the development of Common Core on her EduBlog, deutsch29. She shows how Gates’ money was then spread around to get universities, foundations, and state education departments to sign on to support the initiative.
The Obama Administration has now done what it had to do. Race to the Top (RTTT) is the most important education programme of the Obama administration. At first, it was a competition between states for billions of dollars in federal Department of Education grants. However, it turned into a stick that the federal government could use to force states to accept the Common Core and high-stakes tests that are aligned with the Common Core, as well as charter schools, in order to get out of the Bush-era No Child Left Behind rules that were impossible to meet. The state of Washington was not given a waiver from NCLB because it didn’t want to force school districts to use how well students did on high-stakes tests to judge teachers.
NCLB and RTTT were both in effect. The standards for the Common Core were written down. The Gates Foundation bought and paid for people to back the standards. Now, publishers like Pearson have stepped in to write and sell the tests that President Bush said were the most important part of measuring and the whole process.
On one of its websites, Pearson said that its “close association with key authors and architects of the Common Core State Standards ensures that the spirit and pedagogical approach of the initiative are embodied in our professional development.” Pearson is a full-service Common Core company, so it not only gives the tests, but also the textbooks, test-prep materials, and online help. It also makes the PARCC (Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) tests, which will be given by a group of 12 states and the District of Columbia.
Thanks to Presidents Bush and Obama, the testing industry was going to make a lot of money. According to the Wall Street Journal and the Thomas Fordham Institute, it would cost between $1 billion and $8 billion for the whole country to meet the Common Core standards, and almost all of the money made would go to publishers. CEO of Pearson’s K-12 division Peter Cohen almost jumped for joy and said, “It’s a very important thing. The Common Core standards affect every part of our business.” Pearson told investors in its annual report that it gives tests to 23 states and made the online application for Common Core assessments that are required in 45 states. James Mason, a state leader for PARCC who helped negotiate the contract with Pearson, told Education Week that the scale of the contract between Pearson and PARCC depended on “a number of factors” and was “unprecedented.”
Students and teachers may find some parts of the Common Core Standards helpful. The problem is that No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and Common Core don’t really care about how well students learn. From the beginning, Common Core has been mostly about making money for corporations and giving high-stakes tests.