Chicken Little Goes to School

Repeat after me: The Common Core sky is not falling. Rather, the Common Core is right sizing. The forty-five-state thing was always artificial, induced by Race to the Top greed and perhaps a crowd mentality. Never in a million years were we going to see forty-five states truly embrace these rigorous academic expectations for their students, teachers, and schools, meet all the implementation challenges (curriculum, textbooks, technology, teacher prep, etc.), deploy new assessments, install the results of those assessments in their accountability systems, and live with the consequences of zillions of kids who, at least in the near term, fail to clear the higher bar.

In my dreams, after we had found great merit in the Common Core standards themselves and before the RttT hoopla, I hoped that as many as two-dozen states might do this. Others said we’d be lucky to get one dozen.

Suddenly there were forty-five. And now—predictably, inevitably—there will be fewer. Money is part of the reason. Cold feet are another. Educator resistance, tea-party agitation, excessive cheerleading, and unwarranted credit taking by Messrs. Obama and Duncan…

Fine. Better for states to drop out in advance than to fake it, pretending to use the Common Core standards but never really implementing them throughout the system. That’s long-standing California-style behavior (fine standards, wretched implementation), in contrast with Massachusetts-style behavior (exemplary standards and serious implementation—and results to show for it).

Most of the dropping out, so far, hasn’t taken the form of repudiating the Common Core standards themselves but, rather, exiting from the twin assessment consortia that were created to develop new Common Core-align tests. The PARCC group has been most sorely afflicted so far, which is a pity because what we’ve seen of their approach to testing looks very promising.

The drop-out states seem to be saying “We haven’t forsaken the standards but we want no part of those common assessments. Instead, we’ll develop (or adapt) our own—or sign up with ACT. And we’ll define ‘proficiency’ our own way.”

Unfortunately for them, one-off state tests don’t yield comparable results, and discrepant proficiency bars are much of what went wrong with NCLB—so the drop-out states that devise their own assessments still won’t know how their kids and schools compare with those in other states or with the nation as a whole or whether their high school graduates are indeed college ready. For such comparisons, they’ll still need to rely on NAEP, PISA, TIMSS, NWEA, SAT scores, and other external measures that are consistent across state lines.

That’s OK if all you really care about is state-level results, but NAEP doesn’t do anybody any good at the building or student level. And while PISA is now available at the school level, it’s only for fifteen-year-olds. So the go-it-alone states will forfeit one of the major benefits of commonality, and someday perhaps they’ll see the error of their ways—or face up to the fact that (like Texas and Virginia) they don’t really want to use the Common Core at all.

This is their choice, of course. And NAEP will eventually reveal which states do better, regardless of what standards and assessments they use. So will unemployment rates, economic-growth rates, and many more indicators of which parts of the country are vibrant and which are stagnant.

But the sky is not falling. Right sizing is underway. I just wish that states that want no part of the Common Core wouldn’t pretend that they do.

-Chester E. Finn, Jr.

This blog entry first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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