We’ve Heard Parents Debate Common Core, Now It’s Our Turn

We’ve Heard Parents Debate Common Core, Now It’s Our Turn

Mimi Evans, Editor-in-Chief

Last April, the Class of 2015, at that time juniors, was ushered into our school’s auditorium. Principal Hillman was on the stage and persuaded us to play a game of “Good News, Bad News”.

The Bad News was that in the following weeks, we would take not one but two versions of standardized testing. The Good News?

“You are the last class who will ever have to do that.”

This year, the CAASPP replaces the Standardized Testing and Reporting (STAR) program and encompasses the 10th grade California Standards Test (CST) for Science. Sophomores still take the CAHSEE in mid-March, while freshman take the practice CAHSEE. This streamlining of tests is meant to better align the district with Common Core State Standards.

As Dougherty’s Vice Principal Neha Ummat explained, “[CAASPP] has a lot to do with changing towards Common Core. It’s really more towards less rote memorization and multiple choice. The other piece is looking at how we incorporate technology in [testing].”

Plenty of parents have voiced their outrage over the Common Core State Standards system, which describes itself as “a set of high-quality academic standards in mathematics and English language arts/literacy.” Most of this outrage is not against the standards themselves, but against the way these standards are tested.

A response from an angered parent of a second-grader went viral after the father pilloried the complicated process required by Common Core to solve an arithmetic problem. Comedian and dad Louis C.K. ardently denounced New York’s adoption of Common Core, tweeting, “The teachers are great. But it’s changed in recent years. It’s all about these tests. It feels like a dark time.”

Recently, a PACE/USC Rossier Poll found that 44% of California voters “have a negative impression of the new [Common Core] standards”, up from 25% “opposed” in 2013. Those opposed attacked the “Washington D.C.-based, one-size-fits-all approach” to education.

Common Core State Standards, which, at its peak, were adopted in 45 states, have now been repealed in four. Nine other states have some form of legislation proposed to repeal Common Core.

These parents and voters, while meaning well, are largely misinformed. The Common Core was suggested and adopted by individual, state-led efforts, and is not tied to any federal initiative. Most importantly, the standardized testing system and its flaws have existed for far longer than “recent years”.

As a California student, I have spent the past 10 years taking standardized tests. The past nine have been comprised of the California Standardized Testing and Reporting Program known as STAR.

Beginning in second grade, students take at least two STAR tests every year: Math and English-Language Arts (ELA). Starting in eighth grade, students take science and history tests as well.

10th grade has felt the heaviest, state-standardized-testing-wise, as students were taking five STAR tests as well as the CAHSEE (California High School Exit Examination), which is comprised of separate Math and ELA portions.

In 11th grade, the number of tests decreases back to four.  Up until last year, along with the final year of STAR came the Early Assessment Program (EAP), an essay and series of questions that appeared at the end of the ELA-STAR. The EAP has been used to determine one’s readiness for California State colleges.

Both the old and the new tests have major shortcomings. A huge flaw in the Common Core testing is its rigid standardization; it makes the tests easy to ridicule. However, this is not unique to Common Core. The EAP also contains a ridiculous catch-22: the California Board of Education claims that the EAP is a “voluntary item”, yet omitting this portion of the STAR results in being deemed by the state as “not ready for college”.

California’s new Common Core-oriented test, known as the California Assessment of Student Performance and Progress (CAASPP), was signed into law in October 2013 by Assembly Bill 484, and is set to replace the STAR. The CAASPP is cumbersome and flawed in superficial ways that make a mockery of the Common Core system, as well as marred by more complex problems that threaten the system’s validity.

Some of the lack of foresight on the test is remarkable. The first 20 minutes of our initial CAASPP testing experience were spent trying to get the audio to work on the headphones. The test offers a variety of color themes to choose from, but doesn’t provide an intuitive calculator. Students are not allowed to bring their own calculators as a preventative measure against cheating, though the current lack of calculator functionality is likely causing just the opposite.

The test’s greatest defense against cheating is the “locked browser”: once one signs in to take the test, they may not exit the screen at any time unless they are finished and quit their session. But with the “unlimited” testing time, there is no adequate safeguard against students taking the test at different times, and using their neighbor’s internet to answer the questions. Proctors, usually one to a room, cannot have eyes everywhere at once.

However, the most unexpected and possibly most fatal flaw with Common Core testing comes from the backlash caused by enraged parents and educators. The implication of Common Core’s ineptitude, begun by parents and perpetuated by the media, leads students to expect and actively seek out errors in the test instead of concentrating on the material.

In reality, the CAASPP is not particularly inept. While taking the test, there were no major grammatical errors or illogical math questions. Each of the two Common Core subjects took students an average of 45 minutes to complete, a far cry from the two hours allotted for each STAR test. The problem with the audio portions of the test stemmed from outdated computers and not faulty software. It is now simply the perception of incompetence that makes a student disinclined to put in his or her best effort.

Common Core has the right idea with its free-response questions; the idea is just executed poorly. While the new test requires an explanation of the answer, especially with math problems, it now has a clear-cut definition of what is a “correct” and “incorrect” way to solve a problem.

The truth of the matter is that with math, and even in English, there is not necessarily one way to solve a problem or come to a conclusion. Insight and progress come from entertaining new and varied methods of thought, not rigidly following one (or even a few) guidelines.

On the same coin, parents and educators need to suggest alternatives and improvements to standardized testing instead of responding with viral acrimony or 140-character bulletins of outrage. The core of standardized testing is logical: a benchmark for students and schools to aim for. Common Core has the right idea about a nationalized set of educational standards. The current condition of interstate education is unnecessarily confusing, and the streamlining Common Core proposes is much needed.

But there is a fine line between streamlining and restriction that this “internationally benchmarked” test continues, like its predecessors, to cross. To solve the problem, input is needed from parents, educators AND students. The students who took the CAASPP last year can provide valuable insight if adults, both for and against the program, can swallow their pride and listen.

The fundamental problem with standardized testing is not standardization. It is that parents and educators are not willing to support the current system, yet also cannot stand united behind an alternative.

I doubt that we will be the last class to have to take multiple versions of standardized testing, and this disconnect troubles me. Dougherty’s motto is “Traditions in Excellence”, but this excellence is being tarnished by a tradition of standardized testing without clear purpose or execution.