Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Alex or Gloria?Common Core Assessments

In my last post* I  said that the tests excited reformers “almost more” than the standards. That’s because the truth would have derailed the article. The truth?  The tests were more important to reformers than the standards.

And the tests failed beyond the reformers’ wildest, most dystopian nightmares.

To focus on the standards is to miss the point entirely. As Mike Petrilli and Checker Finn of the Thomas Fordham Institute said, famously, “…..standards often end up like wallpaper. They sit there on a state website, available for download, but mostly they’re ignored.

Recall once more  that No Child Left Behind’s failure, which the education reformers themselves baked into the law, created the very failure they were planning to resolve with Common Core tests. States eager to avoid the penalities of not meeting this impossible standard just lowered the cut scores to allow more students to score as proficient.

So as far as reformers were concerned, NCLB failed because the states refused to maintain high standards.

From that perspective, a primary argument for common standards was to provide an excuse for new, common, assessments. Standards themselves were incidental.  That’s why no one pushing Common Core was bothered by a McKinsey hack was in charge of writing the standards. That’s why all the pedantic objections to specific Core strands were waved off. The people who foisted Common Core on America thought of standards as…..wallpaper.  What they cared about was the tests. They wanted to use the tests to hold states and schools and teachers accountable.

Ed reformers’ reliance on the assessments might be considered the Alex Forrest component of Common Core.

“They weren’t going to be ignored, Dan.”

It was all right there out in the open. From the beginning, all the people pushing Common Core standards mentioned assessments in the same breath.

President Obama:
…I’m calling on our nation’s governors and state education chiefs to develop standards and assessments that don’t simply measure whether students can fill in a bubble on a test, but whether they possess 21st century skills like problem-solving and critical thinking and entrepreneurship and creativity.

Checker Finn: Implementation, Implementation, Assessment, Assessment

But standards are not self-actualizing. Indeed, they can be purely symbolic, even illusory. Unless thoroughly implemented and properly assessed, they have scant traction in schools, classrooms, and the lives—and futures—of students.

In a well-known 2014 Intelligence Squared debate on “embracing the Common Core” , usual allies Michael Petrilli  and Rick Hess of AEI took opposite sides. But both confirm the primary purpose of all this change.

Petrilli: “Rick is right that…a number of states have decided to pull back from common core testing….My argument is that those states have not fully embraced the common core. You cannot embrace higher standards if you don’t also embrace better assessments. They go together…..We should embrace the idea of moving to next generation assessments..that are worlds better than the tests that we’ve been living with for the past few decades.”

Rick Hess: “The Common Core does not solve the problem it was designed to solve…the concern that state were playing games with their test scores in order to make their schools look better than they were. Common Core was supposed to help address this… (emphasis mine)

Note: Hess and partner Carol Burris lost the debate by audience vote.  They both come out very well in retrospect. Petrilli and his partner were wrong on everything.

Given this obvious expectation, the Common Core proponents were, quite simply, idiots.

Alex Forrest thought she’d won Dan when he succumbed to her charms–at the bar, in the restaurant, in the kitchen sink, in the elevator. How could he say no?

The new tests were going to be so great. No one could say no.

“I don’t think having dinner with anybody’s a crime.”

Playing Michael Douglas’s Dan, the cheating husband, are the progressive educators on the left–the union, ed schools, academia.

These folks examined the standards purely on their educational merits and gave into temptation. Remember, liberal policy wonks want integrated math. They support delay in algorithms while emphasizing “conceptual understanding”. They liked the lack of content and, while they’re rarely honest on this point, progressive educators prefer the emphasis on writing over reading. Reading between the lines, Common Core’s instructional shifts” (the “dog whistles”, as Tom Loveless called them) suggested that the Common Core would allow them cover to demand schools use these methods. I doubt they would have had much success, but that’s another issue.

By supporting Common Core, they could point to nationwide standards mandating all their progressive shibboleths while also getting brownie points for  accommodating with the then-popular ed reform movement. Play nice, and get cover to official  progressive instructional methods. It seemed win-win. And the wife–public school parents, for the most part–would never know because no one cares about standards.

Hey, it’s just dinner.

But just as Dan never thought Alex was a beserker who wouldn’t leave him alone, the progressive left never once realized that Obama, their president hero, was explicitly planning on using these new assessments to evaluate schools and teachers.

You can tell the point at which they figured out it because  union leadership and other key players on the left went ballistic. And so you see Carol Burris, at the time a nationally-known Virginia high school principal, and Randi Weingarten, head of the AFT teacher’s union, originally support the standards and then speak out in opposition.   Both Burris and Weingarten mention that they didn’t realize the standards would be linked so firmly to accountability tests. They also realized that the standards which on paper supported progressive goals would in fact create tremendously difficult tests that would not only make life difficult for public schools

” If you ever come near my family again, I’ll kill you.”

Once this horror dawned on them the unions and other left of center advocates not repudiated the standards, they also alerted Dan’s wife, Beth, played in our little saga by affluent parents. Some of those parents take elementary and middle school far more seriously than, really, they should. Some of those parents have high school kids sitting ten to twelve hours for 4 or 5 Advanced Placement tests in May and are ready for any excuse to accede to the kids’ demands for a few days off while the schools give tests they find meaningless. And so the “opt out” movement, driven primarily by parents, encouraged occasionally by teacher unions, centered in states with stronger links between test scores and teacher evaluations. Students also took the opportunity to jump in and opt out.

Parents don’t care about standards. Before Common Core, they didn’t care much about state tests, either. Granted, many parents didn’t like them much, especially if they had sensitive children prone to bursting into tears at the least sign of stress. But without a hook, opting out just seemed…weird. Everyone else’s kids were taking the tests.

Then the tests went and killed their bunny.

The Power Player

The flamboozle about opting out and “instructional shifts” acted as a shiny bright object for the media, and certainly explains the public distaste for Common Core and its assessments. But the progressive left and public school parents aren’t responsible for the total meltdown of the Common Core tests, in my opinion.

The temporary agreement of the unions? The parenting optouts? Irrelevant, really. Nice theater. The power players here were the states.

What mattered, in the end, wasn’t that the tests made parents unhappy.

What mattered is that the tests were ridiculously expensive.

But….but wait, you ask. Isn’t that what Obama administration forked out hundreds of millions of dollars for?

No. NAY. Nyet. Nein. Aw HELL naw, Karen.

The Race to the Top money was just to develop the tests. All that money went to consultants and right about now is when you realize why progressives froth at the mouth over Pearson.

How the Money was Spent, courtesy of hard work by Edweek. Orange is SBAC only, blue is PARCC only, and green for greedy got both.

SBACPARCCVendors

So the Common Core consortia funds went to a bunch of testing and curriculum companies. Said testing and curriculum companies developed the tests for Smarter Balanced and PARCC.

But the tests had to pay for the administration and scoring.

As early as 2012, the great Gewertz (Catherine, of Edweek, the only publication that consistently did bang-up reporting on Common Core), asked how much Common Core would cost, comparing Fordham’s cheerleading lowball estimate with the Pioneer Institute’s warning about the implementation costs. Other Common Core advocates acknowledged the cost, but argued it was worth it.

Proponents  argued that the $25 or so per student was ” not far from the nationwide average of what states currently pay”, but there were a lot of states below that national average and California’s lower than average costs tilted the average down.

But that per seat prices was just for administration and scoring. That cost didn’t include the tremendous infrastructure investment required to create a testing platform. The tests were all computer based, so many states and districts had to spend millions beyond the millions required for the tests, the implementation, and the scoring.

In other words, the states were going to have to shell out a lot of money to be told their students were total losers as far as David Coleman was concerned.

The  Common Core advocates always knew that, so far as love and affection goes, they were the mistress, the girlfriend, the bit on the side. They were always going to lose out to the wife and kids. But that didn’t matter, because those tests meant they weren’t going to be ignored.

It’s just they had the wrong mistress in mind.

The wrong woman

You know who else thought she was Alex Forrest? Gloria Trillo.

She thought she’d seduced a married guy who’d feel so guilty and scared by his infidelity that she could brazen her way into a relationship with him, whether or not he left his wife.

But she’d gotten herself involved with a mob boss, and didn’t know what that meant.

I don’t want to stretch the analogy too far, but it’s important to understand that despite this battle being fought in the media by think tanks and unions and progressive educators, these people were entirely out of the loop on delivery. The states  signed up for Common Core. The states joined testing consortiums,. The states had to deliver the tests, score the tests, live by the results of the tests.

The states aren’t Alex’s slighty guilty Dan. The states are fifty Tony Sopranos. They got mistresses, they got whores, they got the bimbos they screw occasionally at the Ba Da Bing club, they got the infrequent smoking hot number they spot at a party and screw in an elevator for a quick thrill but in the end, they go home to the Madonna, the woman too good to f*** the way they want. Guilt? Fuggedabout it. They’ve been playing this game for 50 years.

SBAC and PARCC were the testing equivalent of strippers. Strippers who want the occasional mob boss attention don’t make waves. They don’t create headaches. They don’t for sure go visit the wife and upset her.

Because if you do, well, Patsy comes by for a test drive and makes it really, really clear that Gloria understands just how thoroughly she can be ignored.

“And here’s the point to remember: my face is the last one you’ll see. Not Tony’s.”

Tony is going to ignore you, Gloria. Go back to selling cars, or end up splattered all over those fine leather seats. That’s the choice. You’ll never get near the wife. You’ll never spend a second more of time in Dan’s brain, even as annoyance, because alas, Dan wasn’t Dan. Dan was Tony.

And the end, well. Not very cinematic. As of late 2017,

parcsbacgeogparccsbactestdecline

Collapse. As bad as that looks, it’s worse just two years later. SBAC is down to 12 and PARCC–well, PARCC isn’t used in full by any state, best I can tell. (Spotted_Toad, who has been watching the PARCC demise up close, agrees.) PARCC’s gone. SBAC has traction in the West Coast. But no common cut scores, no universal benchmarks, not even the figleaf of a win for the people who went to so much trouble to foist Common Core upon a serene and oblivious public.

This was a long way around but I hope it communicates the primary issue: whatever you hear about the standards quality, the unhappy parents, the worried teachers–it was all mostly irrelevant. Politically useful, sure. But the reason that Common Core advocates consider the effort a failure is not because the standards weren’t popular, nor are they particularly worried that states rooted them out. They wanted the tests. They didn’t get the tests.  They thought they were dealing with Dan, that the opposition was the union. In fact, they were cut out of the game by mob bosses.

I have more, but let’s see how this goes.

*****************************************************************************
*(Seven or so weeks. Sorry. No one thing, but a great deal of the delay was because I couldn’t figure out how to explain the fall of the Common Core assessments in a way that covered everything. I mean, you could talk about opt out or bad polls or the 2016 election, but none of it really captured the root cause for the failure. How could I get that point across? Then I could deal with the details.

Suddenly, and I can’t remember why, I thought of probably absurd analogy that runs through this piece. Hope it helps.)

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12 responses to “Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Alex or Gloria?Common Core Assessments

  • Roger Sweeny

    So glad to see this. I think there are a number of typos:

    That’s why no one pushing Common Core was bothered by [that] a McKinsey hack was in charge of writing the standards.

    or

    That’s why no one pushing Common Core was bothered by a McKinsey hack [who] was in charge of writing the standards.

    Once this horror dawned on them[,] the unions and other left of center advocates not [only] repudiated the standards, they also alerted Dan’s wife, Beth, played in our little saga by affluent parents.

    But the tests [states?] had to pay for the administration and scoring.

    Feel free to take this down after you make any changes you think are appropriate.

    • Roger Sweeny

      Sorry for messing up the formatting. I think I didn’t close the html tag after “by”. Definitely take this down 🙂

  • Tall Onion

    “But just as Dan never thought Alex was a beserker who wouldn’t leave him alone, the progressive left never once realized that Obama, their president hero, was explicitly planning on using these new assessments to evaluate schools and teachers.”

    Many organizations got sidewinded by Obama on multiple policy issues. I can’t help but think how many teachers thought the worst was over when George W. left office in 2009 and everyone had a false sense of security. This “Nightmare on Elm Street” plot twist came to mind.

  • Purple Tortoise

    From the very beginning I thought the whole testing business was simply a cynical ploy to discredit schools and put the screws on teachers. You’ve written a very detailed and complicated story, so perhaps I’ve missed something, but it sounds like some of the people pushing testing actually believed it would improve schools. Is that really the case? I could understand how a member of the public might think that, but was it really the case that experts in the field thought that?

    • Roger Sweeny

      Not only could it be believed but a case could be made that it was the only way to improve schools. There is a Latin maxim, “Nemo judex in causa sua”: “no one can be a judge in his own cause”. The Supreme Court invoked it in 1927’s Tumey v. Ohio. There, the state paid certain judges $12 (worth a lot more then) for every defendant convicted. The Court said due process of law required an unbiased judge and that could not be guaranteed when the judge had a financial incentive to find one way or the other.

      School systems are judges in their own cause. They both teach and grade how well they have taught. Failing kids implicitly says the teachers have failed to teach. Now, everyone is willing to accept that some kids won’t learn much, no matter how good the school. But as long as the general public believes that the curriculum is realistic, no school system is going to fail lots of kids no matter how little they have learned or what little skills they have developed. Thus, all the horror stories of high school graduates who couldn’t read, or students who couldn’t place the American Civil War in the proper half century.

      The people who work in a school system simply can’t make an unbiased assessment of what students have accomplished.

      So what to do? The answer of the ed reformers was the same as the Supreme Court’s. There must be an impartial judge who had no interest in the case. There had to be an outside assessment of student achievement. The outsiders would look at the state standards and develop an assessment instrument which would honestly tell whether students had met them.

      The history of high stakes tests suggests that the ed reformers were correct in their diagnosis but hopelessly naive in their prescription. Every time a state test says that lots of students are failing to meet the standards, the “cut score” is lowered so more students pass or the test is “dumbed down”.

      • Chester Draws

        In the rest of the world most countries take a high stakes test at the end of school — and often before then too. (Even the US has SATs.)

        The US problem is that no-one will pay for it, not that they are a problem as such.

        Some countries don’t do national testing. But then, they also usually have some system of ensuring nationwide consistency across schools (inspectors, partial testing etc). Again it costs.

        We all know that if you don’t check on people they will take advantage. Yet the US seems uniquely unable to do what the rest of the world finds quite easy.

      • Roger Sweeny

        The USA has a secular religion that the vast majority of young people can successfully complete a rigorous college prep curriculum (and that indeed most young people can succeed in college). If that doesn’t happen, the school system has failed, the country has failed. Since the secular religion is factually false, honest tests would tell us things we don’t want to hear, things we can’t bring ourselves to admit are true.

        Most countries don’t have such a religion. Many countries run their school systems on the basis that lots of people don’t gain from college prep and college. It is important to find out who will and who wouldn’t. Testing is part of making that decision.

  • Tall Onion

    “We all know that if you don’t check on people they will take advantage. Yet the US seems uniquely unable to do what the rest of the world finds quite easy.”

    Most countries didn’t structure their contemporary education system on Supreme Court mandated input-output achievement equality. Before the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision, US education was barely even regionally centralized.

    But 70 years on US public education has been more viewed as an “anti-poverty” program than a vehicle for ranking candidates for various professions. In truth the US system(s) try to do both, but strongly favors (the illusion) of fighting poverty over selecting and training economic cogs.

  • Calvin Hobbes

    Maybe this doesn’t fit so well with your essay, but whenever I see fussing about standards I think of this:

  • Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Why Didn’t They See Common Core Fail Coming? | educationrealist

    […] return to the point of my last article, which is that the states are experts at taking federal money without any intention of fulfilling […]

  • Bush/Obama Ed Reform: Core Damage? | educationrealist

    […] adequately address the reasons for Common Core’s educational failure to improve results (as opposed to political failure, which I’ve outlined over the past […]

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