BY: Joy Pullman
Education may be the area of government policy most rife with fantasy. Reality beats it back periodically, and we’re entering another such stretch currently, as Common Core supporters’ fantastical promises disintegrate five years after the bigs pushed this impossibly utopian project on our country.
Maybe that’s why Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced his resignation, a curious seven years into his tenure with Obama. There’s no political advantage to “needing to spend more time with his family” at this very moment—unless his Common Core chickens are coming home to roost. And they are.
So, while Politico recently proclaimed “Common Core has won,” the truth is that its victory is a gossamer bubble in slow-motion burst. With it bursts most of Duncan’s work over his DC tenure. Leave while the going is good, right?
Five years ago, while announcing $330 million in direct-from-(probably future)-taxpayers startup funds for the second half of the Common Core project—its tests, which operated on exclusive federal funds for four years—Duncan made a pile of promises about these tests, which are Common Core’s built-in enforcement mechanism. Unfortunately for Duncan, and even more unfortunately for the millions of American kids and teachers he shoehorned into this evidence-less Rube Goldberg flight of fancy, his promises are proving false. Here are just 9 promises Common Core has already broken. Don’t worry. More will come.
1. End ‘Lying to Children and Parents’
The big news on the Common Core front lately is that, despite oodles of pledges to the contrary, states using the barely operative national Common Core tests Arne funded have done exactly what he said they would not. Namely, Ohio and Arkansas have decided to use lower benchmarks for student proficiency than their compatriots using these tests. So in the first year of Common Core results states are already bending to the political pressure we were promised Common Core would block. (Facing an uproar, Arkansas backed down—for now.)
It’s not just those two. Illinois, Massachusetts, California, Florida, and North Carolina (at least) have done the same, The New York Times reported. Louisiana struggled to maintain the line this year, which “does not bode well for the future,” an in-state editorial board opined. “This was exactly the problem that a lot of policy makers and educators were trying to solve,” the director of a Bill Gates-funded Common Core PR shop told the NYT. When states did this before Common Core, Duncan blasted it as “lying to children and parents.” So what is it now?
Let me explain how this sleight of hand works. It’s a common education bureaucrat trick. First, test children. Then, think about how many you cannot politically afford to label “failing.” And set the passing bar on the test for that number. Think I’m joking? Indiana is doing this very thing on its own new Common Core tests right now. That states did this pre-Common Core is extremely well-documented, and it was a major justification Duncan and many others used to push Common Core. Well, it’s back. And we could have known that would happen beforehand.
There’s basically no other way to set a passing bar on a test, because what a, say, fifth grader should know is relatively subjective. It’s a total judgment call. It’s not an exact science, no matter how much test-mongers try to insist or imply otherwise. What they really want to do is substitute central planners’ judgment for teachers’ and parents’ judgment, then hide that they’re doing this under the veneer of “science” and “data.” Even the Common Core test controllers themselves used the same process when setting their “proficiency” levels.
Doing the same thing over and over again and promising different results? I think that’s how you define “bureaucrat.”
2. Test Scores Comparable Across States
That failure creates another closely related one. Duncan promised us that national Common Core tests means, “For the first time, it will be possible for parents and schools leaders to assess and compare in detail how students in their state are doing compared to students in other states.”
Even though Common Core has subsequently failed to live up to this promise (see item No. 1 above), this was actually a lie at the time Duncan said it. I say “lie,” as in “deliberate falsehood,” because at the same moment he was saying this he was in charge of a set of national tests that “detailed how students in one state compare to those in all the others,” called the National Assessment of Educational Progress. NAEP has been providing nationwide data on student performance in core subjects since 1969, with state-by-state results available since 2001.
Since Common Core has moved into place, we’ve also seen that researchers can do statistical jujitsu to compare different state tests to each other using the same scale—to adapt a familiar analogy, they can compare apples to apples after having converted oranges to apples. Here is just one recent study doing that very thing. Florida has done that every year for some time, in order to release comparable test results from schools in its statewide voucher programs without compelling them to use the same test.
3. ‘Actionable’ Test Scores Released Quickly
One of the major complaints teachers have about federally mandated annual tests in reading and math is that the results are “an autopsy, not a diagnosis.” Meaning kids take the tests in April, a good two or three months before exiting school, but the results typically didn’t arrive until late summer or fall, when those same kids were off into the next grade. So teachers couldn’t use the results to, as the lingo goes, “inform instruction,” meaning to actually help children improve.
Duncan and the rest of the Common Core cabal promised us Common Core tests would be different. In announcing the federal grant to these tests, Duncan touted tests “that are instructionally useful and document student growth—rather than just relying on after-the-fact, year-end tests used for accountability purposes.” He also promised these tests would provide students “immediate feedback.”
Now, I know bureaucracy is slow, but reality has stretched that “immediate” beyond recognition. Does “immediate” mean “six months later”? If it doesn’t, Duncan’s promises have proved false once again. Most of the Common Core exams were administered in April of this year, with some in March and May. It’s October, and states are finally just releasing the results. The long wait frustrated the Illinois state superintendent: “Ideally individual student results would be available at the start of the school year so that teachers, parents, and students could use them to inform instruction. This year, we expect individual student results later in the fall. In subsequent years we expect to have them much sooner.”
He’s not the only one. Mississippi educators are upset they’ll have to wait until December or January to see this spring’s Common Core test scores. ““We were under the initial impression that we would get the data back in a timely manner,” a local superintendent told an in-state paper. Yes, you were under that impression because the U.S. education secretary and his lackeys have been saying this for five years. Too bad they can’t be trusted.
4. ‘Transparent’ Results
Common Core was also supposed to let teachers and parents know exactly where children in each grade were in their dull trudge up the education-industrial treadmill towards the workforce hamster wheel. “For the first time, millions of schoolchildren, parents, and teachers will know if students are on-track for colleges and careers—and if they are ready to enter college without the need for remedial instruction,” Duncan promised us back in 2010. He pledged tests that were “transparent, intelligible, and consumer-friendly.”
Yeah, that’s not happening, either. Chester Finn Jr. helped Duncan and Co. herd states into Common Core especially by riding herd on Republican lawmakers through his former leadership of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a self-described “conservative” education think tank that supports government preschool and central curriculum planning. Now, as a member of Maryland’s state board of education, Finn is annoyed with the very thing he helped set in motion. “Most parents [of students with lower scores] receiving this report will not understand that their child is not on track for college or a career,” he complained this fall about Common Core test reports. “It is not clear.”
Louisiana’s state board of education has had to issue an open records request to its Common Core testing organization to pursue essential data about the students it is supposed to oversee and whose parents it is supposed to be accountable to. I wish them luck, but because Common Core tests are the product of crony philanthropy, their overseeing organizations are technically not government agencies and therefore not legally required to fulfill open records requests. Common Core critics have highlighted this lack of transparency for years now—it was an intrinsic feature of the process that created Common Core—yet kept getting pooh-poohed. Yes, people. Transparency matters. We’ve been saying that this whole time. Can you hear me now?
5. ‘Beyond the Bubble Tests’
Duncan said this when announcing federal funds for Common Core: “For the first time, many teachers will have the state assessments they have longed for—tests of critical thinking skills and complex student learning that are not just fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills…”
At this point, I think you get the trend. Turns out Common Core tests are not much different from “fill-in-the-bubble tests of basic skills.” They threw in some computerized window dressing that covers this up, but the bulk of these tests comprised the same multiple-choice kinds of questions we’d been promised these tests would transcend. The Gordon Commission on the Future of Assessment in Education, a private organization that includes several consultants to the federal Common Core tests themselves, said these tests “will be far from what is ultimately needed for either accountability or classroom instructional improvement purposes.”
6. ‘Reliable’ and Accurate Test Results
These tests are still mostly multiple-choice because open-ended test questions do not produce results that are as reliable as multiple-choice. Open-ended questions have to be graded by human readers or artificial intelligence, both of which are not as accurate as objective, true-false grading systems. So Common Core tests could either be reliable, which would mean retaining a format their pushers promised us they’d jettison, or they could fulfill their promise of being different, which would mean less-reliable results.
So Duncan can, and did, promise “valid and reliable assessments that will truly foster better teacher [sic] and college and career readiness” all he wants, but it’s just not possible for the kind of tests he’s pushing to get the kind of results he promised us.
We actually have zero idea if Common Core tests are valid or reliable, and chances are they don’t know either, because they have refused to release their data to independent reviewers, and didn’t have enough data to confirm their tests’ accuracy before they administered the supposedly final versions to students this spring. This is very likely the real reason Duncan unilaterally suspended applying these test results to schools and teachers as federal law requires. He cannot require states to measure schools by invalid measuring sticks. That’s just begging for lawsuits.
Is it okay for me to start throwing out the word “cluster” yet?
7. We’ll Know If Kids Are ‘College- and Career-Ready’
Linked with all these false and impossible promises is perhaps the top talking point on Common Core PR sheets: Common Core will get kids “college- and career-ready.” These tests, as Duncan proclaimed to the world in 2010, were supposed to let “schoolchildren, parents, and teachers…know if students are on-track for colleges and careers.”
But the only way to actually do this is to have children encounter Common Core for their full K-12 career, then track them through college and into their careers to see its effects. For the most accurate results, any such study would have had to randomly assign kids to Common Core classrooms versus non-Common Core classrooms; or, second-best, compare kids who happened to be in Common Core classrooms to kids who hadn’t.
Needless to say, this hasn’t happened. Even in states that were “the first to embrace Common Core,” which Common Core bankrollers Bill and Melinda Gates say is Kentucky, not one child has run the Common Core gauntlet. They can’t have. It’s only at most five years old. Not one child has completed Common Core, let alone gone off to college so we could see whether Common Core helped them succeed.
Bill Gates knows this, and it doesn’t bother him one bit: ““It would be great if our education stuff worked, but that we won’t know for probably a decade,” he said in 2013. He may feel it’s ethical for him and Duncan to experiment on millions of children without their parent’s permission, but most parents don’t, and I wager most ethicists would agree.
Never forget that a coterie of mini education tyrants tossed children into Common Core with zero proof of its effects. It’s all been wishful thinking from the beginning. There has been no measurable evidence Common Core has ever done anything for children long-term, and there can’t be. It hasn’t been around long enough. Not that this tiny detail stopped anyone, least of all Arne Duncan.
8. ‘Teachers Will Consistently Have Timely…Formative Assessments’
There’s another small item promised to teachers as part of the Common Core package: It’s called “formative assessments,” sometimes “interim assessments,” or mini tests students take throughout the year to track their progress towards the big, end-of-year exams. Those were supposed to come packaged into the Common Core testing regimen to help teachers gauge student progress towards these centrally determined curriculum mandates. Well, that never materialized, either.
Here’s Duncan in 2010 again: “For the first time, teachers will consistently have timely, high-quality formative assessments that are instructionally useful and document student growth—rather than just relying on after-the-fact, year-end tests used for accountability purposes.”
Contra Duncan’s promises, federal aid recipient Smarter Balanced, the larger of the two supposedly national Common Core testing organizations (more on that in a sec), announced this spring it had delayed these exact assessments, sending some schools into a scramble:
Visalia Unified Superintendent Craig Wheaton said he wished that the interim assessments had been available six months earlier. He said his district has pulled together a group of teachers to use them in a systematic fashion, and that some began using them as soon as they became available.
‘We were really trying to have an organized pilot and were exploring how to share them,’ he said. But their late delivery thwarted plans to use the assessments extensively in the district, he said.
The other federally funded Common Core testing organization, PARCC, did the same with Duncan’s express permission. Dear schools: I know Arne Duncan has the power to meddle with you as he likes with pretty much no consequences to him no matter how much confusion that creates in kids’ classrooms. Maybe it would help alleviate that confusion if you just started ignoring him. For the sake of the children.
9. Common Core Has Beat Back Opponents
By now it should be clear that Common Core has been not a sleek, “next generation” rescue ship for America’s children, who genuinely deserve better from public education, but a tornado ripping through the mediocre school system we have, reducing its quality further by accelerating curricular chaos.
That’s probably why states are jumping ship. It’s true, as Politico notes, that they are keeping the first half of Common Core–its curriculum mandates, called “standards.” But they’ve trashed the second half like a rotten apple. PARCC used to include 26 states. It now includes seven, with three showing signs they may drop. Smarter Balanced started out with 31 states (some states joined both groups, so the total is more than 50). It now has 18, with at least three getting wobbly.
This means only half of the states are using these meant-to-be national tests, and it’s likely that number will soon dwindle to a third of states. So much for the Common Core “victory.” At best, it’s hollow. At worst, it’s a rout.
This second half of Common Core, the tests, is far more important than the first, because, again, tests enforce standards. They measure whether children actually have learned what Common Core set forth for them. As former U.S. Department of Education official Ze’ev Wurman writes, “the test is the only thing that actually enforces the standards. Without it, the standards are a dead letter. When the states – rather than the consortia – control the test, they can easily modify the standards too.”
We know in personal relationships and in business that people who promise the world are always lying. It’s time for us to get that into our heads regarding education politics, too. When someone comes to town promising you that all children can achieve their dreams and lead our nation into an evanescent future if we only adopt these magic statist policies, fire him. Fast. Don’t let him slide out of town into a cushy crony-sector job, like Arne Duncan’s sure to do.
Joy Pullmann is a research fellow on education policy for The Heartland Institute.