A Guide to the Common Core, the Next Phase of High-Stakes Testing

The state standards, together with brand new tests, are sweeping across the country.

By Julianne Hing Jan 13, 2014

For most public school students in the U.S., 2014 will be the year of Common Core. After years of planning and development, national standardized tests tied to the new education initiative are being rolled out this year. What does this mean for public education and for those who care about equity and access to education for communities of color? Below, a primer to get started as Common Core–and the debate about it–sweeps across the country. What exactly is Common Core? That’d be the Common Core State Standards Initiative to you. The state-run program, which was first proposed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, is intended to introduce a single set of newer, more challenging standards for math and language arts from kindergarten through 12th grade. Prior to Common Core, every state set its own academic standards. The selling point is that the new standards, which ostensibly require critical thinking and analytical skills, will make students globally competitive in a rapidly shifting economy. They’re technically voluntary standards that 45 states plus the District of Columbia and four U.S. territories have adopted.  Common Core is often confused for a federal program because the Obama administration has provided some $350 million to fund the initiative, and made receiving federal money via Race to the Top and leniency on programs like No Child Left Behind contingent upon states’ adoption of Common Core. What’s the big deal? The rollout of Common Core signifies the beginning of a new chapter in the high-stakes testing era. The standards will be accompanied by new standardized tests, and thus far they’ve not been well-received. The first rounds of Common Core tests unveiled in New York and Kentucky in the last year before curriculum was even aligned to the new tests were so difficult and baffling to students that they caused frenzied public backlash.  But there’s more. Common Core is rolling out at the same time that high-stakes testing has become an even more powerful weapon to punish teachers and students. The Obama administration, which in 2012 began handing out waivers to states who failed to meet the already onerous No Child Left Behind required that in exchange, states further tie standardized tests to teacher evaluations. Teachers whose students fail to do well or improve significantly can, and indeed are already losing their jobs, because of their students’ test scores. "At that point, the standards become the test," said Wayne Au, professor of education at the University of Washington, Bothell. Who’s backing it? A bipartisan coalition of federal and state lawmakers and education chiefs has been selling Common Core for years on the promise that the new standards will address inequality in public education and help make all U.S. students "globally competitive." They’re not alone though. The two national teacher unions the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, while expressing their serious concerns with Common Core, have come out in support of it. The dominant education venture philanthropy groups Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation support Common Core, as does big business, like major tech companies Intel, Apple and Microsoft as well as the testing and curriculum behemoths Scholastic, McGraw-Hill, Pearson and Houghton-Mifflin Harcourt. The U.S. public education market has been valued at $500 to 600 billion, and education reform is a prime business opportunity. Who’s criticizing it? This is where it gets interesting. The progressive left, which has been critical of the misuse of testing and punitive, market-based education reform, remains especially critical of Common Core. But they’ve been joined–not necessarily in alliance though–by a growing faction of the tea-party and libertarian Right who consider the state standards, which are easily mistaken for federal standards, an infringement on states’ rights. Conservative groups like the Heritage Foundation and the Milton Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, and pundits like Michelle Malkin, are pushing back against Common Core. Because of the uproar over a dozen states have been reconsidering or slowing down their Common Core adoption. What is the rollout looking like right now? Like so much of education policy, this really is a state and local issue. The standards may be uniform but every state is encouraged to come up with its own implementation and curriculum, so this will vary from state to state. This map provides a look at the implementation schedule of Common Core. What are the stakes for students and communities with under-resourced schools? Progressive education experts argue that there’s no problem, theoretically, with new rigorous standards, but that in the context of the high-stakes accountability movement, Common Core look much like the trajectory set forth by No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. "The high-stakes testing regime will disproportionately impact students of color," said Andre Perry, dean of Davenport University’s School of Urban Education. "I think that’s going to continue. What I’ve always feared is how we hold schools and teachers accountable to meeting the standards," said Andre Perry, dean of Davenport University’s School of Urban Education. "Whenever you put social and political functions on top of tests you corrupt what you’re trying to measure."