Common Core

The Common Core State Standards and Assessments have been adopted in 45 states and 4 US Territories.  They are backed with money from the US Department of Education and private donors.  When combined with the Race to the Top money and waivers from NCLB, which came with hooks from the US Dept of Education, they are increasingly being advocated for and backed by the US Department of Education.

As of November 12, 2013, Virginia is not one of the Common Core participating states, but that could change now that we have a new Governor.  Understanding what the CCSS are, what they are not, and what role the NCLB waiver plays in them are important for citizens and elected officials to understand how much flexibility our local school divisions and state have regarding public education.


What Are the Common Core?


The Common Core State Standards are content standards that describe what our children will learn and when they’ll learn it and assessments that evaluate how well they’ve learned what we think they need to learn. That’s all that they are.

The standards exist for K – 12 Math and English.  History and Social Studies standards are reportedly under development.  The Next Generation Science Standards were issued a while ago, but are not Common Core.  Some reports indicate that they are in the process of coming under the Common Core umbrella.

The Common Core Assessments are being developed by two different national consortia – Smarter Balanced and PARCC.  Both of these tests are still being developed.  They’ve been piloted in some states and will be field tested in the Spring of 2014.  Neither will be available nationwide until the Spring of 2015.

Virginia residents will note a similarity here as the CCSS are essentially the VA SOLs for the entire nation.  Just like the SOLs, the Common Core are standards and assessments – nothing more.

That may seem surprising to those of you who have followed the controversy about the Common Core.  Much of the controversy has been about the non-stop testing, high stakes end of year testing, privacy concerns resulting from extensive data gathering, and instructional materials and practices being followed in the classroom.  With the exception of end of year high stakes testing, those things are the result of the Common Core, not part of the Common Core.

While that may seem minor, it’s an important distinction because it addresses the level of flexibility states have and Prince William County could have if the state chooses to adopt the Common Core.


What Aren’t the Common Core?


Instructional Materials and Practices

The CCSS explicitly state that they are not instructional materials or practices (on page 5 if anyone cares to look). Critical thinking and collaborative learning don’t appear anywhere in the CCSS.  There is nothing in the CCSS that calls for student led, student driven classrooms with teachers as facilitators.  The CCSS do not say that conceptual understanding trumps procedural fluency and accuracy.  These are all claims by textbook publishers and professional development companies trying to sell their products and services to Common Core states.

Practically the day the standards were issued education industrialists started saying that their products and services were aligned with or supported the Common Core.  They had to say that if they wanted to sell their products.  Those claims have rarely, if ever, been challenged or independently verified.  These unproven and unverified products and practices have been sold to school districts across the nation and are the cause headaches in many classrooms and homes.

Just like many of the complaints about the CC stem from the instructional materials and practices being followed, so to do many of the complaints about the SOLs.  Yet neither the CCSS nor the SOLs call for specific instructional materials or practices.

The choice to follow these practices and use these materials are being made at the state and local level.  The CC themselves do not endorse or suggest materials or practices.  States and local school divisions are making these decisions about instructional materials and practices themselves.

Since the choice to use particular materials or follow specific practices is a local one and not the result of a federal mandate, that means that choice can be changed at the local level.

Non-Stop Testing

One of the other set of complaints about the Common Core is non-stop testing.  Interestingly, it’s one of the chief complaints in Virginia as well, and we’re not a Common Core state.  That’s because the non-stop testing isn’t the result of the Common Core.  It’s the result of several things, part of which is the NCLB waiver.

Part of the NCLB waiver requires states to tie teacher and principal evaluations to student performance.  You need information and material to demonstrate growth for every student, so that means pre-tests, quizzes, end of unit tests, and benchmark tests (sometimes called Common Formative Assessments or CFAs).  In Prince William County the benchmark / CFAs are generally developed centrally.  Because they test certain material and have to be given within a specific timeframe, teachers have to ensure that they teach their students what will be on the test.  That means the order in which lessons are taught, pace with which they’re taught, and what they cover, are, to an extent, dictated by central office.

Some of the non-stop testing is the result of the NCLB waiver, like the need for data to demonstrate student growth, but there is nothing in the waiver that says this has to be hard data.  It could be portfolios of work as opposed to test results.

Some of the non-stop testing is the result of decisions being made at the local level, like centralized testing and lesson pacing.  Because the decisions about centralized testing and lesson pacing are local and not part of a state or federal mandate, they can be changed.

NCLB Waiver

The Common Core were initially developed as part of a state run “voluntary” effort.  With Race to the Top, the NCLB waivers, and hundreds of millions of dollars in grants from the NSF and US Dept of Education, they are now effectively an effort being run by the US Department of Education.  Race to the Top has now expired, so we’re left with the NCLB waivers as the federal enticement to comply.

No Child Left Behind (NCLB) is still the law of this nation.  Congress has neither repealed nor replaced it.  NCLB has been derided and blamed for just about everything bad in public education today by what seems like every person in this country.  No one appears to think NCLB is good law.  But it still stands, today, more than 12 years since it was first passed, without a single amendment to fix it.

Of particular concern are NCLB’s accountability requirements.  These rules require 100% of students to pass their state’s exams by the spring of 2014, a feat many believe is impossible to achieve.

The US Department of Education began offering waivers to states against NCLB’s accountability requirements, provided the states agreed to do a number of things.  Those things include adopting and implementing college and career ready standards and assessments, tying teacher and principal evaluations to student performance, and gathering data about student and teacher performance in something called a State Longitudinal Database System (SLDS).

To adopt college and career ready standards states could adopt the CCSS or demonstrate that their state standards are college or career ready.  Forty-five states and four US territories have adopted the CCSS.  Virginia is one of the holdouts.  Virginia’s Department of Education demonstrated that our SOLs are college and career ready for the NCLB wavier.

Tying teacher and principal evaluations to student performance is a bit more difficult as you need lots of data to do that and that data generally comes from tests.   The US Department of Education has provided a number of data points they believe ought to be gathered and retained by states in their State Longitudinal Database System (SLDS) (see NEDM for an overview).  Some of those data points appear to be unrelated to K-12 coursework.  FEPRA laws currently prohibit states and localities from sharing personally identifiable information outside of the state education department or locality, however, the US Department of Education has asked for that definition to be expanded so that personally identifiable information could be shared with US government agencies and third parties conducting education research.


Differences Between the CCSS and the SOLs


In essence, the Common Core are the SOLs on a national scale. Both define what our kids will learn and when they’ll learn it, and evaluate how well they’ve learned it.  Neither are the practices being followed in classrooms, the materials being used, the non-stop tests, teacher evaluations tied to student performance, or the reams of data being gathered about our children.

So how do they differ?


The CCSS assessments are being developed by two national consortia.  The SOL assessments were developed by Pearson, with input from the Va Dept. of Ed.  The Common Core’s assessments are still in the pilot stage and can’t really be evaluated, though concerns about them have begun to trickle out.  The SOL assessments have recently been revamped to be more rigorous, though whether they are or not is up for debate.

Because the CC’s assessments are still in the pilot stage, there’s not much to compare with regarding assessments.  The standards are a different story.


The information in this section is based on the Fordham Foundations review of the CCSS and State of State Standards reports and public comments from some of the people who wrote those reports or served on the CCSS validating committees.

Fordham gave the English / Language Arts standards from both the CC and the VA SOLs a B+, though that doesn’t tell the entire story.  The CC’s ELA standards have come under criticism for their emphasis on informational texts and desire for “cold reading” of historical texts.

Virginia’s K – 8 math standards were considered mediocre by Fordham’s reviewers.  Chief among their concerns are the fact that the SOLs don’t call for automatic recall of basic math facts, disregard the standard algorithms, don’t develop common denominators which makes adding and subtracting fractions all but impossible, limit operations involving fractions are to “friendly” fractions, poorly define area, and fail to mention the formulas for area of triangles and rectangles.  The CC’s K – 8 Math standards are considered good, though concerns with them include the fact that they are not internationally benchmarked and delayed automaticity with the standard algorithms.

Virginia’s high school math SOLs were considered strong by Fordham’s reviewers, with the exception of the poor development of quadratics in the standards and over reliance on graphing calculators.  In contrast, the CC’s high school math standards were considered poor.  The primary distinction appears to be college and career readiness.  Virginia’s SOLs provide multiple pathways for graduation that support students hoping to enter work after graduation or hoping to attend college for liberal arts, general studies, business, and STEM programs.  The CC limit their standards to Algebra I, Geometry, and a watered down version of Algebra II.  They provided one pathway for graduation which is too much math for some students and not enough math for others.

There is a catch, however.  Virginia’s STEM pathway includes Calculus in high school.  Calculus in high school is necessary for students to begin college level programs of study in STEM fields.  The standards for Calculus in high school come from the AP, IB, or Cambridge programs, depending on which are followed in that school or school district.  The Common Core specifically precludes Calculus in high school because the authors felt that high school students weren’t ready for such advanced work.

The College Board develops the AP courses, which include AP Calculus.  The College Board recently announced that they will be revamping the AP program to align with the Common Core. As AP Calculus lies outside the sequence on instruction in the Common Core, AP Calculus will no longer be supported.  That means that for AP schools and school districts, Virginia’s STEM pathway will cease to exist as it will not longer include Calculus in high school.


Why This Matters


Virginia is one of the few holdout states in the nation in that we have not jumped on the Common Core bandwagon.  This was in large part the result of Governor McDonnell.  That’s a good thing, in my opinion, because the Common Core implementation has been less than ideal.  Because of concerns with the Common Core, a number of states that had jumped on the bandwagon are pausing or considering withdrawing from the Common Core.

In my opinion, neither the Common Core nor the SOLs meet out children’s needs.  If I had to do one or the other, I’d stick with the SOLs.  We’ve already got a waiver from NCLB, the money from Race to the Top has already been spent, and there’s no real cost or benefit to replacing the SOLs with the Common Core, but keeping the SOLs allows us to maintain what little local control we still have over what our children learn.

Virginia has just elected a new Governor and he has said that he wants to evaluate whether Virginia should join the Common Core initiative or remain independent.  Clearly, there is wiggle room for Virginia to do this differently and for localities to do better for their children if the state of Virginia desired to implement the Common Core Standards and Assessments.

I think we can do better.  I think we should take this opportunity to really look at what we want from our public schools in terms of academics and then design our standards and assessments to fulfill that vision.  Below is what I’d propose doing.  The framework to strengthen Virginia’s standards is based on Dr Sandra Strotsky’s  article What To Do Once the Common Core is Halted.

Strengthen Virginia’s Standards

We need academic standards that provide pathways to graduation for all of our children.  We need pathways for children who want to start their careers right after graduation and for children who want to go to college for fine or liberal arts degrees, general studies or business degrees, or science, engineering, or math degrees.  When it comes to our children, one pathway does not fit all.

So I’d start by ensuring that our secondary school standards support those multiple pathways.  I’d convene a committee of high school English and Math teachers,  Community College professors, and 4-year college professors of Math, English, and Engineering from Virginia and have them develop the sequence of coursework that would provide those pathways.  I’d have them review and update the standards for the secondary school courses in those pathways to ensure that they are college and career ready.  I’d convene another committee of primary and secondary school Math and English teachers to review and update the K – 6 Math and Language Arts standards to ensure that they provide the foundational skills necessary for students to complete the secondary school coursework.

So that the committees don’t have to start from nothing, for English / Language Arts I’d have them start with Virginia’s K – 12 SOLs for Language Arts; for Math I’d have them start with the Common Core’s K – 8 Mathematics standards and Virginia’s high school Mathematics standards.

This strategy could be followed by the Virginia Dept. of Education or an individual school district if the Governor directs Virginia to jump on the Common Core bandwagon.  School districts across the nation are recognizing that the Common Core are not sufficient for their students and adopting Common Core plus strategies in their districts.

There is one thing that the Governor could do immediately.  To support children following the school work pathway, he could create regional School to Work Academies that are based the same model as our regional Governor’s schools, but focused on school to work as opposed to college readiness.  

Protect Student Privacy

Virginia needs to protect our children’s privacy.

Individually identifiable information about our children should not be shared outside of their local school division, including data that is provided by student ID instead of names, addresses,and social security numbers.  Information that is shared outside of the local school district should be limited to aggregate group data.

Change How We Teach

We teach to the test.  Whether it’s benchmark tests, formative assessments, SOLs, or AP / IB / Cambridge exams, what our children learn in school, the order in which they learn it, and the depth to which it is learned, is determined by how it’s tested and the extent to which it’s tested.  To change how we teach our children we have to change how we test them.
  • Eliminate Centralized Testing and Lesson Pacing and Let Our Teachers Teach
    • Centralized testing and lesson pacing means teachers can’t teach lessons in the order they think is best, don’t have the time to review units when their students don’t get it, and don’t have the materials, training, or authority to accelerate instruction when their students are ready to move ahead of grade level standards.
    • Centralized testing and lesson pacing comes from PWCS, not the Virginia Dept. of Education.  PWCS could change this.  If PWCS wants to stick with common assessments, then they could develop them in such a way that teachers could select the units they want to test and administer the tests when they think their students are ready.
  •  Eliminate Once a Year High Stakes Testing and Replace it With a More Flexible Model
      • The NCLB waiver requires us to assess how well our children have learned what we think they need to learn, but once a year high stakes testing means we teach exclusively to the test.  It means the entire academic year is focused on passing the end of year tests.  It means exam prep begins weeks before the exams, sometimes as early as January, and that learning stops once the exams are over because everyone is fried.  It means children can’t move ahead until the schedule dictates it, even if they were ready months ago.  It means students who aren’t ready to move ahead have to take the tests anyway, possibly fail, and then get promoted anyway and fall even further behind.
      • The NCLB waiver doesn’t say we have to evaluate our children once a year – it just say we have to do it at least once a year.  The NCLB waiver doesn’t say we can only give the exams once to every student, it only says we have to test every student.  
      • Several years ago Superintendents from across Virginia proposed to the State Superintendent that we do away with end of year testing and instead allow our children multiple opportunities to take the SOL exams.  Children who pass would then be allowed to move ahead, even in mid-year.  Students who don’t pass would continue their grade level program and could take the exam again.  The idea was rejected, but, in my opinion, needs to be reconsidered.

3 Responses to “Common Core”

    • Ron Lowe Says:

      Common Core is illegal! It is not supported by the Constitution and what is not supported by the Constitution will not be supported by me.

    • Christina Says:

      What can be done to keep Common Core out of Fairfax County Public Schools?

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