College & Workforce Readiness Opinion

The Common Core Equity Swindle

By Anthony Cody — March 10, 2014 3 min read
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Of all the arguments for the Common Core, the trump is always the equity card. The Common Core is supposed to set high standards, and when our schools implement them with rigor, all boats shall be lifted on the tide of ever-rising expectations.

But like every other product of 21st century corporate education reform, this is turning out to be an enormous swindle. Yesterday, Carol Burris and Alan A. Aja explained why. The trouble is that the scores on the more “rigorous” Common Core tests show an even wider performance gap between whites and blacks. Alarming numbers of African American students are performing worse than ever. Burris and Aja write:

...the percentage of black students who scored "Below Standard" in third-grade English Language Arts tests rose from 15.5 percent to a shocking 50 percent post-Common Core implementation. In seventh-grade math, black students labeled "Below Standard" jumped from 16.5 percent to a staggering 70 percent. Students with disabilities of all backgrounds saw their scores plummet- 75 percent of students with disabilities scored "Below Standard" on the Grade 5 ELA Common Core tests and 78 percent scored "Below Standard" on the 7th grade math test. Also, 84 percent of English Language learners score "Below Standard" on the ELA test while 78 percent scored the same on the 7th grade math exam.

There seems to be a belief at work that the best way to spur better performance from students is to tell them they are way behind, in order that they might work harder to catch up. This would explain the fervent desire to constantly “raise the bar.”

But there are consequences to this downward push on performance indicators. We have to look at the purposes for which these tests are being used to comprehend the consequences this will have for these students. First of all, students are going to be told that they are performing way below grade level. This information can have a dramatic effect on young people. When I taught sixth grade math, one of the biggest obstacles I had to overcome was that some students had done poorly on tests, and had decided as a result that they were “bad at math.” Apparently the Common Core tests will inform 84% of English learners they are “bad at English language arts,” and 78% of them that they are “bad at math.”

Burris and Aja also point out that there are plans in New York to use these tests to determine who will graduate from high school. In California, there has been talk of using Common Core tests to replace the state high school exit exam. California will trial test the Smarter Balanced tests this spring. If the results follow the pattern set by other Common Core tests, we could see a major drop in student performance, and many students could find themselves having earned the grades and credits to graduate high school, but receive no diploma because of failing the test.

More and more states are also requiring that students perform “on grade level” or be held back. Tests that yield lower performance will also shunt many students onto this delayed track, once again stigmatizing them as slow and inadequate.

In the magical minds of many reformers, when you “set the bar higher,” our students take a quick look around, perceive the increased expectations, buckle down and work, and rise to meet the challenge. In the reality of high poverty schools, many students are already convinced that the system is rigged against them. The introduction of new tests that significantly increase the number of them labeled as failing is likely to reinforce that suspicion.

Those advocating for this Common Core bar-raising insist that these tests are accurate indicators of whether students are “college ready.” These tests are too new for there to be any evidence for this claim, but I have my doubts. The latest research shows that the other test used for this purpose, the SAT, is a lousy indicator of college readiness, but an excellent indicator of family income.

In fact, the greatest predictor of success in college turns out to be the good old GPA. A college president, Leon Botstein, wrote this week that the SAT is “part hoax, part fraud.” A few years from now I have a feeling the verdict on the Common Core will be the same.

My number one objection to Common Core and the associated tests is that they are being used to rank and sort students, teachers and schools. That appears to be their purpose, from start to finish. The farther into this experiment we get, the more devastating this latest sorting mechanism appears to be. Every time you stamp “college ready” on a student who has cleared the bar, the students that did not make it past that hurdle are stamped “unworthy.” When the vast majority of English learners, African American and special education students fail these tests, we cannot allow this to be heralded as an advance for equity. It is a swindle, a hoax and a fraud.

What do you think? Will raising the bar better prepare students for college and career? Or label even more as failures before they even get a chance?

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Image from SpeedReads, used with permission.

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