Unless Connecticut changes direction in what has been packaged and sold as “education reform,” its achievement gap, the largest in the nation, will be exacerbated.
All of Connecticut’s children are harmed by the narrow and inappropriate content of the Common Core Standards and by the amount of instructional time lost to preparing for and taking standardized tests to measure acquisition of that content.
Connecticut children of color,already hurt by poverty and racism, however, suffer the most. Current “education reform” will further marginalize them as Jim Crow laws of the past marginalized African Americans in southern states.
The content of the Common Core standards was established by employees of testing companies. The content is simply what those employees determined can be measured on standardized tests.
For example, not one educator with expertise in teaching students how to develop as thoughtful readers and effective writers chose the 188 random skills to be taught in grade 9 and 10 English courses, or the 192 random skills for grades 11 and 12. Also, no field studies were done to determine if those particular skills lead to achievement in college or careers.
The tests to assess mastery of this arbitrary content are meaningless hurdles whose function is to produce scores by which schools, teachers, and students are ranked. The more a school focuses on teaching the narrow and inappropriate content of the Common Core, the more its students will be harmed.
Connecticut schools vary widely in their adherence to the Common Core. None of the private prep schools, which specialize in preparing students for college, teach or test the Common Core. Many school districts with affluent parents and a history of good test scores pay lip service to the Common Core and continue with their own curricula.
However, the school districts with a history of low test scores teach exclusively to the Common Core tests because so much rides on raising those scores and not being identified as failing schools. Teaching to the test means those students are not taught to be engaged readers, motivated writers, critical thinkers, and thoughtful questioners as their peers in schools of the more privileged are taught to be. Impoverished students of color are often taught to simply be takers of standardized tests.
All this test preparation, however, is not likely to help students, disadvantaged by poverty and racism, score well. The “cut score” or passing grade on the Common Core aligned tests has been arbitrarily set so that approximately 30 percent of the test takers pass and 70 percent fail.
Scores on all standardized tests, such as the SAT and Connecticut’s CMT and CAPT, correlate with the family income of the test takers. Children living in poverty are disadvantaged in so many ways that even stringent test prep will not produce scores equal to their more advantaged peers. A large proportion of the 70 percent of Connecticut students who fail the tests will come from homes affected by poverty and racism.
The Common Core tests are given in grades 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, and 11. How will failing tests year after year affect children’s sense of themselves and their belief that schools are places for them to learn and grow?
How will it feel to come to school each day and look at the data wall in their classroom which posts each child’s scores on practice Common Core tests given throughout the school year and recognize their failures?
When they are 16, will they take the 11th grade test or drop out of school beforehand? If they stay in school and are not among the 30 percent who pass the test, what will the schools do with the students who fail the test and, therefore, do not qualify to graduate? Keep testing them?
What will Connecticut as a state do with large numbers of teenagers who give up and drop out of school? What are those young people without high school diplomas to do with their lives?
Connecticut’s students of privilege have the opportunity of receiving a private or public school education not restricted to the Common Core which prepares them to be future participants in society and the workforce who can innovate, collaborate, and communicate effectively. Students in schools intent upon raising test scores, however, have little opportunity of acquiring those necessary skills.
How can Connecticut turn this around and keep from becoming a Jim Crow state dividing those who are well-educated from those denied a productive education?
First, we must reject the misguided “reform” of the Common Core and its accompanying tests. As parents, we must opt our children out of those tests, and, as educators, we must reduce instructional time given to teaching the narrow and inappropriate Common Core content and preparing for Common Core tests.
Secondly and most importantly, as educators we must offer an alternate vision about teaching and learning, one grounded in well-documented knowledge about how children and adolescents grow and learn, and design ways to assess the achievement of real growth, real learning.
Connecticut has the resources — the educators, the research institutions, and the knowledge — to lead the country in creating real reform for children of all races and all incomes. Let’s begin.
Ann Policelli Cronin is a consultant in English education for school districts and university schools of education. She has taught English, been a district level administrator for English programs, taught university courses in English education, been assistant director of the Connecticut Writing Project, and won state awards for her teaching and national awards for curriculum design.