Bravo for Common Core, but What About the Tests?

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I am pretty sure I am supposed to be against the Common Core learning standards. I am not.

While I share the concerns of many of my colleagues that the new standards are a Trojan horse for further standardized testing, narrowed curriculum and hierarchical control of what happens in the classroom, I think the standards themselves represent the greatest opportunity for history teaching and learning to be widely re-imagined since the Committee of Ten set the basic outlines for American education over a hundred years ago.


However, none of this will matter if the Common Core’s implementation is not paired with a dramatic change in how the state holds students accountable for learning social studies.

The standards offer an opportunity to broaden the conception of social studies from one that focuses on helping students acquire an established body of knowledge to one that emphasizes the historical thinking skills that are central to constructing this knowledge.

The standards clearly articulate the disciplinary skills necessary not only for reaching the relatively low bar of “college and career readiness,” but also for the much greater calling of creating an informed and critical citizenry.

Over the past year, I have led 10 workshops for social studies teachers from around the city and the country about implementing Common Core in their classrooms. Many of these teachers work in the 26 schools still slated to be closed as part of the turnaround model of school improvement.

When I share with teachers the work my students do, where students examine multiple sources and perspectives related to a topic over a week or more of class, the response is overwhelmingly positive.

Teachers are excited to have students actively construct knowledge as they take on the role of historians or political analysts. Without exception, they want to support their students in developing the critical thinking, reading and writing skills necessary for life.

There’s always a "but," though.

“This is great,” teachers said over and over again, “but this won’t help my students pass the Regents.”

While I disagree with this point, I understand where teachers are coming from. In schools where teachers do not have freedom over their curriculum, the expectation in high school history courses is that a different topic is covered each day to ensure students are exposed to all the information that may show up on the Regents history exams, and there’s a lot of it.

Even when there is more freedom, teachers who do things that do not look like test prep put themselves at risk of poor evaluations.

Teachers who focus on content and test prep are sadly doing all that is necessary to prepare students for the exam. A recent study by Gabriel Reich of Virginia Commonwealth University found that the Global Regents Exam does not call for any historical thinking skills, but rather knowledge of history content, basic literacy and “test-wiseness.”

The history Regents exams do not ask students to do anything that meets the overwhelming majority of the new Common Core standards.

It is particularly troubling then to find that the state does not seem to have a concrete plan in place to change the history regents exams.

According to Gotham Schools, the best-case scenario is that Regents exams will “start reflecting the Common Core’s focus on real-world situations, problem-solving, and informational texts in the 2013-2014 school year.” However, public statements by both city and state officials give no indication that this applies to the history exams.

Meanwhile, the city and state are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars (some of which has been paid to me to lead the aforementioned workshops) to ensure that Common Core standards are implemented for the 2012-2013 school year, and that the new teacher evaluation system’s “Student Learning Objectives” align to the standards.

Teachers, whose first desire will be to ensure their students’ immediate needs are served, will undoubtedly nod their heads in professional development sessions, and perhaps even be excited by the work expected by the new standards, as they were in my sessions. In the end, entropy and the students’ needs will win.

Teachers will not see a reason to change their practice, particularly if the change could risk a student’s graduation. Once exams do change in a year or more, it will then be too late, as most teachers will reasonably write off the Common Core standards, and will no longer be open to trying something new in the way that many are now.

If the Common Core is to be successfully implemented and adopted by social studies teachers, both the City and State Departments of Education need to ensure that the standards are implemented concurrently with new assessments of students' learning.

And as anyone who works with teachers knows, you often only get one chance to get us to try something new.