Keep ‘high-order thinking’ without the high-stakes testing

By Simon Brown / Columnist

“The test was way too hard. Everyone I talked to totally failed it.” 

Unless you went to a very experimental school, you probably picked up this defense mechanism sometime in middle school to justify a particularly unimpressive grade. After the third or fourth time, however, your parents probably stopped listening. 

But after grade school students in New York City took the first state tests aligned with the controversial Common Core curricular standards earlier this month, just about everyone started listening. 

With only 26 percent of students in grades three through eight passing the English portion, and 30 percent passing the math portion, the old excuse — maybe for the first time — seemed appropriate. 

These results could prove fatal for these Common Core standards, which have already received their fair share of criticism from commentators across the political spectrum. 

The strengthened skepticism toward the standards themselves, however, misplaces the concern. Rather than drawing the old “unfair test” conclusion from the results, parents and educators should come to realize that now more than ever old, state-specific standards simply failed their students. States ought to maintain the standards but re-evaluate some of the features that most concern teachers. 

Designed through the collaboration of state governors and school superintendents, the Common Core State Standards exist to normalize expectations for public school students across the nation. Though the standards give explicit benchmarks for student progress from kindergarten to graduation, its advocates claim that it allows flexibility for teachers to employ their own methods to teach. Ultimately, the designers argue that the standards, which emphasize “high-order thinking,” will prepare students better for college and the internationally competitive workplace.   

Forty-five states — including Pennsylvania — and the District of Columbia have signed on to align their state exams to the standards. What is more, the Obama Administration and the Department of Education have tirelessly defended the efforts through their “Race to the Top” program, which disburses federal funds to states that introduce “internationally benchmarked standards and assessments” — the long way of saying “Common Core.” 

But after the dismal results from New York City’s much-publicized experiment with the tests, some states and educators are starting to reconsider them. Indiana and Michigan have begun political procedures to review their involvement in the program. 

This possible setback would only contribute to the mounting discrepancies between the United States’ education system and those of the most successful developing countries. 

No conversation about education reform can last long without someone quoting the most recent statistic disappointingly comparing American students’ performances to their international peers. Ascending the educational ladder to a position suitable for the wealthiest nation in the world, however, requires far more than rhetoric on high expectations — especially when those expectations differ drastically from school to school and from student to student. 

It would be difficult to imagine how teachers across the nation could hold their students to the same expectations when local, state and federal governments invest in their students at such wildly different rates. The Council on Foreign Relations recently concluded from a study of international education systems that the drastic differences in per-pupil funding across the United States contribute significantly to the nation’s poor student performance.

With the more limited financial support for schools that educate poorer students, teachers in these areas have neither the funds nor the encouragement to hold their students to expectations as demanding as those for better-financed students. 

The Common Core standards, then, present a partial solution to this dilemma. By holding all students to a universal and measurable standard, educators can support teachers to maintain the highest expectations for those students who need it most. By providing a curriculum designed primarily for college preparation, teachers will be able to better clear a path to higher education for students from backgrounds in which that result is all too often unexpected. And by providing data on student success to policymakers, the tests would — ideally — illustrate the need for more equitable funding to the schools that need it most.

Politicians’ recent track records when it comes to testing and funding, however, are no comfort to those who worry that these test results will become another tool for schools and governments to fire teachers and deny funds. 

In addition to adopting Common Core standards, the Department of Education also encourages states to implement test-based teacher evaluations with the carrot of federal “Race to the Top” money. Considering the deplorable performance on these tests, schools will soon have some newly acquired flexibility to fire teachers as they see fit. 

By tying teachers’ futures to the results of a rigorous and novel test, schools and governments are only contributing to the rising classroom paranoia surrounding standardized tests. 

Not only does this anxiety discourage teachers from curricular creativity, but it also mischaracterizes the Common Core standards as a miracle cure for all the ailments of any school. Test scores will not magically skyrocket after the first year’s rocky introduction. Just as anything in education, it will require years of consistent effort to even marginally improve. Firing teachers if their students’ scores do not immediately improve will only hinder the process. 

It will take policymakers decades to correct the inadequacies of the education system. And though Common Core standards are a step in the right direction, major improvement will require a host of other structural reforms. Hopefully, through their solutions, politicians will be able to demonstrate their own “high-order thinking” skills.

Write Simon at [email protected].