Common Core and High-Stakes Tests: An Overview

I received this tweet during the We Will Not Conform event I participated in last week: “Information regarding Common Core is about as clear as mud.”

As I was watching the rebroadcast of We Will Not Conform last night, I could see how people, who didn’t know a whole lot about Common Core and high-stakes testing, would be very confused by this subject. I decided a crash course in education reform, from Bush to Obama, was necessary to understand Common Core and its components.

Common Core Standards is an initiative brought to us by the Obama administration. It is his version of education reform. But before you can understand Common Core, we have to examine No Child Left Behind, which was George W. Bush’s education reform policy. Both are related and to understand one, you have to understand the other.

President Bush signed No Child Left Behind or NCLB into law in 2002. This new federal mandate was an attempt to hold schools accountable. According to the President and his brother Jeb, who was really the force behind NCLB, schools were not doing the job they should be doing and NCLB was going to fix that.

Under this new law, schools and districts would be given a grade based on their performance on state assessments. This was just like a report card: A, B, C, D and F. Those grades would be published and the public could then decide what school they wanted to attend. This was what we call the accountability movement because the President was attempting to hold students, teachers, administrators, districts and states accountable for student performance on high-stakes assessments.

The tests are called high-stakes because the students’ scores on these exams determine their entire academic success. For example, a student could have all A’s and fail the state assessment and therefore be denied a high school diploma under this new law. One measure, the state assessment, determined everything.

Under NCLB states were permitted to adopt their own tests. A problem of inconsistency in the rigor in assessments soon surfaced. For example, Florida’s assessment was very difficult while other states, that shall remain nameless, were much easier. So the standard was not the same for every kid in every state. This was one of many issues with NCLB.

One important aspect about NCLB is that testing companies got in line to produce these new tests that went with this new mandate. Hundreds of millions of dollars were spent on tests. The more tests, the more money. It was the first time in education history where companies were profiting off of the failure of our students.

For example, under NCLB a tenth grader must pass the state exam to graduate. If the student does not pass the first time, he or she must retake the exam. Some students retake the exam multiple times per year, year after year. In the high school where I worked there were 1500 students; 50% of them failed the exam. The exam cost between 15-35 dollars per student. If half fail, then 750 kids are retaking the exam over and over again. Multiply that by every school in every district, in every state all over the country, that’s a lot of cash for testing companies. Test makers love failure because there is profit in failure.

Fast forward a few years and in comes President Obama and his own education initiative called Race to the Top or RTTT. While much of RTTT is like President Bush’s NCLB, Obama wanted to remove the inconsistencies of all the different standards and all the different tests in every state. In schools it was called “reducing the variance”.

He also wants to up the ante and cultivate more science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in schools. With RTTT came big money for states from the Recovery Act. If states adopted Common Core and the tests that go with them, they could get hundreds of millions of dollars. For example, Florida got 700 million dollars in RTTT money.

But we all know, you don’t get 700 million dollars for nothing.

President Obama, his Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and Bill Gates decided that Common Core Standards, the same standards every state would adopt, would promote more rigor in the classroom and make students “college and career ready”. These were the new buzzwords in education.

Jeb Bush, the National Governors Association and were also instrumental in the implementation of Common Core.

In a nutshell, if you were a governor and wanted hundreds of millions of dollars for education, you adopted the standards. Some governors adopted without even looking at the standards. Money does that to people.

Forty-six states adopted the Common Core Standards right off the bat and began to adopt the assessments that went with them. At the time there were two assessments for the Common Core: The Partnership for Assessment of Readiness College and Careers or PARCC and Smart Measures. There were only two testing companies, one for PARCC and one for Smart Measures. The money to be made was bigger than ever before. While under the Bush administration the assessments were between 15-35 dollars per student, these new assessments would be much more expensive.

Under RTTT, states were given some autonomy. Once they adopted the Common Core Standards, they could change the standards to fit the needs of the state up to 15%. Many governors, who opposed federal intrusion into state affairs, adopted the standards and changed them. Florida was one. Governor Scott said the standards were unconstitutional after he adopted them and received 700 million dollars. It was politically bad for him so he had the Florida Education Commissioner, Pam Stewart, change them and rename them The Florida Standards. Don’t be fooled; it’s Common Core with a different name. Florida also adopted a different exam and different testing company to build the exam. Don’t be fooled by that either. American Institute of Research or AIR, the company chosen to build the Common Core assessments for Florida students, has just as much to gain as the other companies building other Common Core exams.

The most important thing you should know about this initiative is that there is a lot of money to be made in the test generation, data acquisition and data storage.

Most districts are now in a deficit over Common Core, because the amount of money it costs to implement the standards and the tests that go with them is way over the amount given to states and districts for adopting them.

As the federal mandates for common core trickle down to the schools, administrations are being overwhelmed and overworked with the requirements of all the new testing. Computer labs that are purposed for research and electives are now being turned into testing rooms. Libraries, cafeterias and even gyms have now been converted to accommodate hundreds of laptop computers in order to facilitate testing large quantities of students. Since it is a requirement to test, school funds have to be set aside to buy computers and software strictly for testing only. All of this has to be done without any extra funds.

The most impactful thing parents and students can do is fight back. Understand that assessments fuel this machine. To stop the machine, we have to cut off the fuel. Boycotting the exams will disrupt this system because a school’s grade is determined by the amount of student’s tested. Simply put, 95% of all students in the school’s population MUST be tested. If this number is not reached, based on the school grade calculation, the school grade automatically drops one letter. Dropping a letter grade looks bad on the administration, the school and the district; therefore administrators will try to intimidate students into taking the tests.  Don’t cave!  Stay strong.

A boycott of the test disrupts the data, which ultimately is used to calculate school grade. By refusing the tests, schools and districts will have to rethink how they calculate performance.  You can learn more about boycotting the exams here.

States are adopting Common Core differently and now the way the standards are tested vary throughout the country. Become informed in your particular state and district with laws, rules and regulations regarding Common Core and their accompanying assessments.

It is important to note, school reform goes way back to the days of Eisenhower and Common Core is rooted in policies spawned by the Space Race when the Russians launched Sputnik into space in 1957. That is a whole other story. For more on that click here to get a chapter of my book that explains school reforms of the past.


5 Responses

  1. Jim Oase

    Interesting how one idea morphs into another idea, into another until the original idea is lost in the shuffle and some how a late comer thinks that the 4th or 5th step is original thinking. In my mind this all relates to ‘we are who we are because…’

    Goes back to what I call the original common core; ethics, morality, integrity and rich knowledge of history. History is the mortar and the weak link. A seemingly insignificant idea for one person is the crux of the idea for another person. Einstein’s theory of relativity is like that. For Einstein the the idea was born on bus ride. He looked at a clock as they were driving away. The position of the hands arrives at his eyes at the speed of light. If he was going away faster than the speed light, what position would he see? So is the opposite true, going in the other direction also true or does it just take good brakes to keep from crashing into the bus depot?

    We are blessed with different skills, likes, dislikes, persistence and determination so our need for skills knowledge is different. We all are part of very interconnected society so having a common set of social skills, a common core, is critically important. When we lived in our original family, each of us learned different skills to accomplish the family’s needs. Just to do the dishes we decided who washed and who dried. The cook decided the best compromise for seasoning and selection of foods to accommodate the various tastes. We learned the importance of giving our word and keeping our word. We learned the boundaries of personal and public. We learned how to disagree, honestly and just in spite. There is a lot to our common core. The pity of our current education system is that we no longer teach our common core. That use to be something parents taught but compulsory education has replaced the parent with a stranger. If the stranger is asked who teaches common core they will point at the parents and the parents at the stranger. Everyone is responsible which means no one is responsible. Suddenly we find ourselves 4 or 5 steps into morphing an idea and we think we are doing something original. If we only knew our history. Isn’t learning and gaining understandings our history what stories are about. Aren’t our stories parables? Write a multiple guess question that tests parables.

  2. vicki

    Thank you for providing this information. Every article helps to make this problem clearer and exposes it’s horrible flaws.

    • Adam Zilbar

      Agreed. It is sad that one test decides if a person can graduate or not. There needs to be way more options and alternatives then to pass a single test because some people are not good test takers.

  3. Dominick Chiricosta

    Thank you, Kathleen, for connecting the dots in your “crash course”. I have been aware of most of what you wrote, but was missing the connections. I’m a naturalized citizen with a BA in Mathematics from Syracuse University. Not sure what I was going to do with a Math degree, my HS geometry teacher convinced me and helped to secure a teaching position (8th and 9th grade math) at a small rural school in upstate NY for the school year 1965/66. To make a long story short, I resigned after completing my 1st year of teaching because I was told by my department head and principle that “we do not cater to individual students” at this school. Issue: I was keeping an 8th grader after school for misbehavior, I quickly discovered that the student tested in the top 1% on all previous tests and was bored with what was taught been in all classes. Among other special assignments, I introduced him to computers and by the Thanksgiving vacation he had become a model student in all class.

    My reason for bringing such an event into this discussion is that it and many others I experienced during my 40+ years in the high tech industry, have convinced me that too many people, in particular those who work in a government environment, do not address the root cause of a problem when they define and then implement a solution. From what I’ve heard from my 3 nieces and nephews, who are K-12 teachers, from my previous knowledge of Common Core, and your above “crash course”, I believe that once again “they” came up with a solution to a problem without having understood the root cause of the problem they attempted to solve.


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